For the first time in its short history, since entering the NHL as an expansion team last year and creating the implausible from what most believed the impossible, the Golden Knights on Tuesday night in San Jose will experience playoff hockey.
The ultimate kind.
The do-or-die kind for both teams on ice.
It’s only about what exists above the shoulders now, which side between the Knights and Sharks own a higher degree of mental toughness.
That’s it. That’s all.
Bodies are weary. It has been a long and physical series.
It’s all about the head now.
San Jose on Sunday night avoided elimination for the second straight game in dramatic fashion, beating the Knights 2-1 in double overtime of Game 6 in this Western Conference quarterfinal before what ultimately became a despondent crowd of 18,458 at T-Mobile Arena, where by far the best game of this series played out.
The Knights earned their share of playoff experience last season, claiming a Western Conference title and advancing to a Stanley Cup Final. But at no time was a series extended to a seventh game.
At no time did they face the pressure of what will welcome them to SAP Center. Not even in a Cup final against Washington, a series that ended in five games because the Capitals were just that much deeper and better.
“You know, it’s Game 7,” said Knights coach Gerard Gallant of what awaits Tuesday. “It’s Game 7 and both teams want to advance. I think it will be two teams grinding it out and trying to advance. … Winner-take-all, Game 7. You get ready to play and forget about (Sunday). You have to move on and get ready for the next one.”
And such becomes their greatest challenge: How to recover from a game where the most important of statistics suggested the Knights should already be preparing to host Colorado in Game 1 of a Western semifinal?
How in the world do you get past having 30 more shots than your opponent, scoring just once and losing in double-overtime?
The Knights can do so by playing a similar game to that of Sunday, as difficult a proposition as that might seem on the road with a season riding on the outcome.
But they took 59 shots in Game 6, all of which were turned away except for a Jonathan Marchessault second-period backhand that sailed past Martin Jones, circa 2016.
San Jose’s goalie is suddenly the one who led the Sharks to a Stanley Cup Final four years ago and not the one who has been routinely pulled against the Knights the past two seasons.
The Knights need to solve him Tuesday, need a lot more odd-man rushes than they managed in Game 6, need to convert when such moments arise.
They also need an even better version of Marc-Andre Fleury.
Hertl goal soft
He stopped 27 of 29 shots Sunday and some again were fantastic saves, but as much as the short-handed game-winner from Tomas Hertl at 11:17 of the second overtime was the fault of defenseman Shea Theodore for not being aggressive enough with this stick and allowing Hertl to spring free, it was absolutely a long enough shot that you would expect Fleury to deny.
It was the first double-overtime short-handed goal in NHL playoff history.
It was also a soft one that has to be stopped.
“They get one little crack at it and sneak one by (Fleury),” Marchessault said. “It’s obviously disappointing. I think we should’ve won, but who cares? We’ve got to go to Game 7 and get it done over there.”
It wasn’t a good hockey game Sunday. It was a great one.
This is the San Jose, with Jones playing as he has the past two games, that most believed could win the Stanley Cup at season’s outset. This is that team, one the Knights now must defeat on the road to avoid breaking for the summer.
Forget the legs. Forget the six games that preceded this moment.
Do-or-die is about the head.
Come late Tuesday night, we’ll know which side is tougher above the shoulders.
The other side? Hello, vacation.
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.