May 23 vs. Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7 and FAN 106.7
Game 7, Eastern Conference final series. Series tied, 3-3.
It started out as a best of seven. It shrunk to a best of three. Now, it’s a best of one.
Six games between the Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning have resulted in a three/three split, so for the fourth straight season the NHL’s Eastern Conference final series will go the limit. The Caps and the Bolts will clash for the seventh time in less than two weeks on Wednesday night at Tampa’s Amalie Arena, with the winner moving on to the Stanley Cup final series to face the Vegas Golden Knights.
Washington put forth an extremely sturdy Game 6 performance in the District on Monday, blanking the Bolts 3-0 to force Wednesday’s decisive tilt. Braden Holtby stopped all 24 shots sent in his direction, T.J. Oshie scored twice and the Caps outplayed the Lightning in virtually every facet of the game to square the series at three games each, making Wednesday’ Game 7 a necessary reality.
“Obviously you’re not going to beat a team like Tampa in this situation unless you have a lot of commitment, you have a lot of those details, you have a lot of those second efforts and you have everybody absolutely contributing, and that’s what we had tonight,” said Caps coach Barry Trotz after the victory. “And that’s what you’re going to need going forward in Game 7.
“This group is engaged. They enjoy each other and they respect each other. They know that those details are huge in having success, so I think that’s where a lot of the growth is. Every moment matters, and they’ve taken it to heart.”
Monday’s performance from the Capitals was dominant and convincing, but it still leaves the Caps a win shy of reaching the final and having the rare opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup. They know they can’t rest yet.
“I think it's important to play with controlled emotion,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I think you have to bring it. You can't save it for one second. But you have to be in control. You can't take penalties. You can't be overzealous with the puck. You have to make smart plays. You have to bring a lot of energy in the right areas. You still have to have confidence to make plays when they're there, confidence to skate the puck rather than just throw it.
“It's going to come down to will and execution. I'm sure we're going to be excited. The challenge for us is going to be staying confident with the puck, execute your jobs, make your plays when they're there, go after them.”
“It is rare,” says Caps center Jay Beagle. “I've been fortunate and blessed to be with this organization, with such a great team. It's been a lot of fun. As you get older, you start to be like, okay, these opportunities don't come along that much. It makes it that much more fun, that much more exciting, as well.”
Wednesday’s Game 7 will be the fourth the Caps will play under Trotz’s bench tutelage, and Washington has won one of the first three. The Caps prevailed over the New York Islanders 2-1 in Game 7 of their first-round series in 2015, lost 2-1 in overtime to the Rangers in the second round that same spring, and fell 2-0 in an excruciating Game 7 loss in their second-round series against Pittsburgh last spring.
All of those past experiences – both good and bad – from previous Game 7s will be lingering within the gray matter on both benches on Wednesday.
“I think you just don't have to be frustrated if something happens not your way,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin. “I think you have to stay the same course, play the right way. It doesn't matter what happens till the last second.
We just have to continue to play like that, like we played [Monday] night. Play simple, play smart, don't give them freedom in the neutral zone and offensive zone.”
Tampa Bay is in the Eastern Conference final series for the third time in the last four seasons. Two years ago, the Lightning led the Penguins 3-2 in the ECF series before losing Game 6 at home and Game 7 by a 2-1 count in Pittsburgh.
In 2015, the Lightning won a pair of Game 7s by identical 2-0 scores. The Bolts came back from a 3-2 first-round series deficit to oust Detroit with a 2-0 win at home, and they beat the Rangers on the road in Game 7 of the ECF to advance to the final against Chicago.
“Those are both on the road,” notes Lightning coach Jon Cooper of his previous two Game 7s in the ECF series. “I think both of them we lost Game 6, had a chance to close them out. The one thing for us, it was just about an attention to detail. We're not necessarily sitting here dreaming about what the outcome could be. It was go out and execute your next shift. When the buzzer goes, let's see where we're at. I think that's how we kind of grew into this team. It's kind of taken that attitude.
“The one thing I do know, they're tight checking, low scoring, close games. It really doesn't come to how many you put in the net – it's how many you keep out. That attention to detail on the defensive side has to be there.”
Both teams have that defensive attention to detail, and both have strong goaltending as well. Tampa Bay’s Andrei Vasilevskiy has permitted exactly two goals in each of the last four games, and the Caps have rolled up 30 or more shots on net in all four of those games.
Caps goaltender Braden Holtby was nicked for 10 goals in three games as Washington lost three straight earlier in the series, but he rebounded to post a 24-save shutout in Game 6, giving Washington an opportunity to play in another Game 7 on Wednesday.
Vasilevskiy and Holtby carry identical 11-5 records as starters in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, and Vasilevskiy’s .920 save pct. this spring is just a shade better than Holtby’s .919 mark. In this series, Vasilevskiy is at .910 and Holtby is at .903.
“When you get this deep into a series, seven games, all these players know each other by heart,” says Cooper. “Now it really comes down to a little bit of will. You have to will yourself to this moment.
“Both teams have done this so far. I do like the fact that there will be 19,000 people helping us, willing us to victory. I want our guys to enjoy the game. It's a phenomenal experience. This will be my third one in four years.
“You just have to remember, don't let the game become really much bigger than it is. Go out, execute, leave everything out there, see what happens.”
The eyes of the hockey world will be upon them all.
“Heck of an opportunity,” says Niskanen. “We're one game from the big dance. Ready to go.”