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It's never too early to start defining your career. Never too late to alter a perception, either.

But it's getting late in this Stanley Cup playoff series between Detroit and Tampa Bay. Too late, in fact, for Niklas Kronwall to make a difference now, thanks to a one-game suspension handed down by the NHL on Tuesday for his Game 6 hit on Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov.

And for some of the other key figures on both sides, it's approaching now-or-never time again this spring. So what better place to start than here, in a Game 7, with the entire NHL watching and the Canadiens waiting?

What happened the last two weeks is what brought us to this point, and for some that's a concern, whether it's the scoreless captains of both teams (Steven Stamkos and Henrik Zetterberg) trying to lead the way at the opposite ends of their careers, or a second-line star (Gustav Nyquist) getting lost in the shuffle at either end of the ice, or a second-year goaltender (Ben Bishop) looking jittery in net as he juggles the puck.

"But the beauty of it: None of that matters," said Stamkos, who scored 43 goals during the regular season but has none in this series. "No one remembers what happens in Game 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 once that puck drops. This is Game 7."

And those, as Lightning coach Jon Cooper explained Tuesday, a day after his team had forced tonight's winner-take-all showdown at Amalie Arena, are "two of the greatest words put beside each other in any sport."

Which is why, as both teams talked about their own Game 7 histories, they all seemed to agree on one thing: Embrace it.

"When you're playing on the pond, or you're playing street hockey, you're never scoring the OT winner in Game 2," Stamkos said. "It's always scoring the OT winner in Game 7. So I think all of us can go back to that and realize this is a dream to play in one of these games."

He said all that, of course, before the nightmarish disciplinary scenario for the Red Wings played out as some in the organization had feared it might, with the NHL's department of safety icing Kronwall for Game 7. And regardless of what you think of that ruling, there's no denying his ill-conceived launch in the final minute of the second period Monday night might very well be the play that ends up deciding this series.

Instead of Kronwall, Mike Babcock will have to go with either Jakub Kindl or rookie Alexey Marchenko tonight, shuffling his defensive pairs on the road in a game where every mistake — think those line changes were rough before? — will be magnified.

Still, stranger things have happened. They often do in a Game 7, honestly. Particularly in today's parity-plagued NHL, where the separation between players on the ice — structure, structure, structure — isn't much different than the separation between the teams in the standings during the mind-numbing, point-pirating regular season.

Struggling stars

So this is no time for excuses, really. We've heard enough made for both teams since the series began.

Zetterberg, who has a stellar Game 7 track record with three goals and six assists in six games, will be the first to admit he needs to be better. The 34-year-old captain has no goals and three assists and is a team-worst minus-3 in the series.

"Obviously, you want to produce more than I've done," he said Tuesday. "Game 1 and 2 I didn't play good. After that, it's been better. But obviously it would be nice to see the back of the net."

Stamkos is feeling even more heat on the other side. The 25-year-old center is a pure scorer, but he, too, is looking for his first goal in the series. And the frustration has shown, at times, with Stamkos whistled for a series-high six minor penalties. He didn't score in either of his previous Game 7 chances in 2011 — a 1-0 victory over Pittsburgh and a 1-0 loss at Boston.

"But playoffs are all about different guys chipping in," said Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader, clearly still bothered by that late-season hand injury himself. "It's not always gonna be your big-name guys. You see Stamkos over there hasn't scored any goals, and I imagine they're talking a lot about him. But I think playoffs are about your depth as a team."

And the depth of your resolve, which is what gets tested best in these moments.

Opportunity knocks

Tonight's the night we find out a little more about rookie Red Wings goaltender, Petr Mrazek, as he tries to handle the Lightning and the thunder in a hepped-up, hostile arena. Ditto the young defensemen, Danny DeKeyser and Brendan Smith, who've run hot-and-cold but will need to play bigger — and better — minutes now.

It's also the night someone else can rewrite their own history, if only for a chapter. Take a vet like Marek Zidlicky, who has been mostly a liability of late. A critical power-play goal wouldn't change all that, but it sure would help. Same goes for Kindl, if he gets the call to replace Kronwall. Nyquist, still finding his way in the tight quarters of the playoffs, and Tomas Tatar, who finally might've found a spark in Game 6, could make amends for last year's rookie playoff flop.

Heck, even Babcock — coaching perhaps his last game behind the Detroit bench — has something to prove, trying to avoid a third first-round exit in four years. So what if he's playing shorthanded on the talent side? This'll be his eighth Game 7 in the NHL, while Cooper hasn't coached in one of these since junior hockey.

He reminded everyone again Tuesday this Game 7 is no surprise.

"I thought we were gonna be a real tough out," he said. "And I think we are. I also think we're gonna win tomorrow. But that's just the way I think."

Not much time to think now, though. Just enough time to do something about it, is all.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/JohnNiyo

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