In an NHL Western Conference finals rife with potential story lines, only one really matters as the Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche prepare to meet in a decisive Game 7 Friday night in Dallas.
Forget home-ice advantage. The visiting team has won four of the first six games -- two of the three in each building.
Forget the age vs. youth angle, the debate about Dallas's veteran savvy vs. Colorado's relentless, altitude-tested stamina. By the opening faceoff, nearly 72 hours will have passed since the end of Tuesday night's Game 6 -- more than enough time for everyone to go from bruised to rested to nervous.
Focus on the goaltenders -- Colorado's Patrick Roy and Dallas's Ed Belfour.
"In a seven-game series, that's what it comes down to," Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux said. "It's so important. Their guy came into our building and did a good job for them [making 27 saves in Game 6]. Now, we've got to go into [their] building. Obviously, we're going to rely a lot on our goaltending. [Roy] has been a huge key to our success on the road, and I'm sure he'll respond very well."
Roy has been instrumental in Colorado's 8-1 road record in this season's playoffs. And in his career, he has a 110-66 playoff record and 2.40 goals-against average. But he is 2-3 in Game 7 situations. Belfour is 2-0 in Game 7 situations, although his overall playoff renown is far smaller than Roy's.
"I think if you look at these playoffs, especially this round, we've seen so many breaks and so many turnovers," Avalanche Coach Bob Hartley said. "Goaltending is going to be huge. Patrick always finds ways to rise to the occasion. Game 7 will be another great challenge for Patrick."
Roy was spectacular through most of Game 6, stopping 40 shots. But after Jamie Langenbrunner scored for the Stars at 6 minutes 49 seconds of the third period to break a 1-1 tie, the Avalanche seemed to fall apart, leading to two easy goals for Dallas in the closing minutes of a 4-1 victory.
And that may explain why Hartley doesn't want his team to feel completely dependent on Roy.
"I don't want us to take the approach of playing cautiously," he said. "We need to be all-out and play solid defense. But we need to use our skills to our advantage. We can't play back on our heels."
Neither can the Stars. Although they are 6-2 at home in this season's playoffs, those two losses are to Colorado.
"We know the way this series has gone, home meant nothing to either team," Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig said. "We're going to be in for a battle."