Appreciate teams that go the extra game

You hear it so often that it comes off as cliche -- Stanley Cup playoff seventh games as the absolute zenith of human endeavor and entertainment.

Then you watch the Games 6s that make the Game 7s possible, and you realize you've been aiming low.

The pure adrenalized desperation that marks Game 7s, you know about. Twenty-one such series in the past five years, 24 when you count the two tonight and the one tomorrow. And rarely do those seventh games stink -- one goal's worth of difference, occasionally two. None of that 8-1 stuff, or in NBA terms, 106-82. The seventh games pay for themselves, through all the tedious January and February games against unwatchable teams that think the neutral ice trap is the sporting equivalent of the polio vaccine.

But if you watched the sixth game of Montreal-Boston on Saturday afternoon, or Vancouver-Calgary on Saturday night, or Ottawa-Toronto on Sunday (and you are exempted if you TiVo'd for The Sopranos, because when else will you see a heartwarming tale of a boy, his dog, his dad's mistress, and the mistress' son who got the dog when the dad was told to give the dog away?), you know that seventh games emanate backward to sixth games, especially for the team down 3-2. I mean, how else do you explain Vancouver blowing a 4-0 lead and being outplayed through two full overtime periods before sneaking in the game winner?

The answer is, you don't, any more than you explain Alex Auld to an audience that doesn't know Dan Cloutier, let alone Johan Hedberg. It's as pure a case of "you had to have been there" as there is.

And frankly, there may not be an explanation for Alex Auld anyway, but that's a debate for another time.

Such is the maddening nature of hockey, though, that there are so few seventh games, and so many regular-season games (21, as opposed to 6,150), and so many series that end in four or five games, that you tend to savor the sevenths and imbue them with powers far beyond mere sporting events.

Which is why a really smart hockey fan expands his or her vision to include sixth games, knowing full well that it means rooting for the team down 3-2, even if you hate that team.

This, of course, wouldn't work well for Flames fans Saturday night, or Leafs fans Sunday night. Rivalries are a real bitch when you are facing the higher calling, especially rivalries where overturning cars are considered the hole cards before the flop. It is hard to ask Leafs fans, who have enjoyed one Stanley Cup in the last 37 years, to take the longer view when confronted by a Senators team that annoys the hell out of them in normal times, let alone April.

Plus, it isn't like Flames fans have been overburdened with cheerful news over the past few seasons, and leaving the Canucks around for an extra go seems excessively generous by any standard.

Still, we're looking at the larger view, albeit from a vantage point of an area whose team finished off its opponent in a desultory five games. True, the Sharks might have been even more driven to beat the Blues in four games if they'd known the Mike Danton story a little earlier, but their work came a little too easily in the end. Sharks fans take their series victories where they can get them, and there is considerable tactical advantage in winning as quickly as possible.

But it wouldn't have killed them to go the extra miles, especially since they had to wait until Monday to find out who they're playing in the second round anyway.

Or take Nashville, whose first playoff series ended in six games on the business end of the Detroit Red Wings. Sure, the Wings were against the extra games, but they can take solace in knowing that the Predators energized a previously undermotivated hockey town and made a star out of Tomas Vokoun. Plus, the Wings are in the same situation as San Jose -- waiting to see if they host Vancouver or Colorado.

Oh, yes. Colorado -- Home Of The Seventh Game.

Nine times in the last 15 series, spanning six postseasons, the 'Lanche have kept the other guys in play, or the other way around. For a team with Patrick Roy, you'd think that's probably not a bad way to go, but Colorado lost five of those nine series, so it is instructive that they plowed through Dallas in five games with David Aebischer covering their backs. For the principals involved, seventh games are a painful skin rash that topical cream just doesn't cure.

For the rest of us without an overt rooting interest ... well, sorry we can't be more sympathetic, but this is a rare case where we don't particularly care about seeing the baby as long as we get to see the labor pains.

Thus, we're all for Habs-Bruins and Canucks-Flames tonight, and Sens-Leafs tomorrow, because it beats anything else you've got going the next two days.

Although in fairness, the stuff with Tony and Tippy the dog really is classic.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.