CHICAGO -- In the hours before the pivotal fifth game of the Stanley Cup Final -- the fifth game in a 2-2 series is practically obligated by law to be referred to as pivotal, I believe -- I keep trying to catch myself from looking too far ahead in this mesmerizing series between the Bruins and the Blackhawks.
And let me tell you, I'm about as effective at doing that as Corey Crawford is at snatching whistling pucks with his glove hand. Oh, Game 5 will almost certainly be an instant classic. Pivotal, even.
Yet here I am on my personal odd-man rush toward the inevitable Game 7, thinking and thinking again about that thin line after a winner-take-all game between rejoicing and regretting.
I know, the established code of professional sports says you're not supposed to look beyond the next game, well, ever, but particularly not in a taut, tightly-contested series such as this Bruins-Blackhawks showdown. I know that. I get it. One at a time.
Yet I can't resist, not after Thursday night.
Blame that other winter sport that, like hockey, now extends until the edge of summer. And these words in particular:
"Game 7 is always going to haunt me.''
That's not a confession you'd ever expect to hear from Spurs great Tim Duncan, and not just because his default expression is somewhere between laconic and how-dare-you-interrupt-my-nap. He's as accomplished as accomplished gets in this NBA generation ï¿½ a 14-time All-Star, a four-time champion, a three-time Finals MVP, a two-time league MVP.
He hasn't let much get away over the course of his career. And yet there he was after the Miami Heat defeated his Spurs in Game 7 of the NBA Finals Thursday night, the spectre of two late missed layups hovering over him as he put his pain into words.
Again: "Game 7 is always going to haunt me.''
It was devastatingly candid, and it turned my mind back to this series, which has been so evenly matched --the Bruins are outscoring the Blackhawks by a single goal, 12-11, through four games -- that it seems headed for a similar conclusion.
One side will rejoice. The other will be pummeled with regret. And right now, I have absolutely no clue which side will do which.
The Spurs will hear a cruel chorus of how-could-hes? and if-onlys and what-ifs deep into the offseason.
If Duncan's late layups fall, perhaps the Spurs have a different Game 7 fate, or at least prolong it.
If LeBron James is something less than transcendent. If, if, if.
For both the Bruins and Blackhawks, there have already been so many chances seized and chances given away that there are ready-made laments for whichever team loses this series.
What if Chris Kelly can put the puck in the gaping net in Game 4? What if the Blackhawks got more than one puck past stellar Tuukka Rask in the lopsided first period of Game 2? What if there's no double-deflection on the winning goal in triple overtime of Game 1?
So many twists both big and small have turned the tenor of the series multiple times already. There are three games to go in all likelihood, and already I feel for the Tim Duncan of this series.
A series as brilliant as that, as brilliant as this, doesn't deserve such a grim instant postscript. No one should be forcibly adorned with goat horns.
Watching Duncan, an established winner so devastated in defeat, was a reminder to appreciate those who have risen to the occasion when the stakes are highest and the pressure paralyzes lesser competitors.
It has been Duncan in the past who rose up and seized the moment, many times over.
Nathan Horton and Patrice Bergeron are among those -- many -- who have done it for the Bruins. They have experience at thriving under the utmost pressure. They've won when the alternative wasn't "get 'em next time,'' but carrying a loss that never leaves.
If -- right, when -- this series goes seven, the Bruins will enter the rink with their fans' utmost faith. But there's also a way of dodging that suffocating tension in advance:
Beat the Blackhawks on their own frigid turf Saturday night. Then somehow shake the seemingly inevitable, and end this thing at home Monday in six. Hey, Game 7 can't haunt you when you've already moved on to planning the parade.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.