May 10 vs. Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7
Game 7, Eastern Conference semifinal series. Series is tied, 3-3.
After a year off from the rigors of a decisive Game 7, the Capitals are ready to strap themselves into the one-game, winner-take-all rollercoaster once again. On Wednesday night, Washington will host the Pittsburgh Penguins in the fourth Game 7 in 10 playoff series between the two teams, and the first since 2009. At stake is a trip to the Eastern Conference final.
Days after being down 2-0 and 3-1 in the series despite starting the set with two home games, the Caps finally chased the Penguins down and forced Game 7 with a convincing 5-2 victory over the Pens in Pittsburgh in Monday’s Game 6.
“I think we regroup,” says Caps right wing T.J. Oshie, of the team’s mindset heading into Game 7. “I think there is still another level for us. Obviously, [Monday] was the result that we wanted. It wasn’t quite the first period we wanted, but the last 40 [minutes] were really good for us. We take away the things we did really well tonight – which was getting pucks deep, blocking shots and getting pucks out when [the Penguins] were pinching – and take it into the next game, and improve on some other areas.”
Including a third-period comeback the Capitals authored in Game 5, they scored eight unanswered goals in the series in a span of 69 minutes and 40 seconds.
“We feel pretty good about our last two games,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen, “but we’re back to even now, only. So, Game 7 at home. It’s going to be the toughest game of the series. We’re going to have to play really, really well to beat them.”
The Caps played extremely well in all areas of the game in Monday’s Game 6 victory. Washington scored in every period, scored twice on the power play, was perfect on the penalty kill, and needed just 26 shots on goal to score five times.
At the other end of the ice, the Capitals limited the Pens to just three shots on net in the first 20 minutes, nine in the first 40 minutes and 18 on the night. Pittsburgh did not record its first shot on goal at five-on-five until just 1.1 seconds remained in the first period.
Washington spent a fair share of time in the Penguins’ end of the ice, but the Caps were also able to create several odd-man rush opportunities over the course of the contest. More importantly, they limited Pittsburgh’s counter attack game until permitting a pair of four-on-four goals in the game’s waning minutes.
“When teams come at you,” says Pens defenseman Ron Hainsey, “you should move the puck by them and create that way, especially when they’re over [eager]. That’s what we did so, so well in the first round, we moved pucks past pressure that was coming maybe out of control and created offense. [Monday], we weren’t able to do any of that. We just could not sustain anything on their half of the ice, really.”
So much can change so swiftly at this time of year. In just over 48 hours, the Capitals went from being 20 minutes away from the end of their season to forcing a seventh and deciding game in Washington. And Pittsburgh goes from being on the verge of moving on to the third round to being suddenly confronted with its own postseason mortality, having failed twice now to extinguish the Capitals.
Washington’s bounce-back came after a disheartening 3-2 loss to the Pens in Game 4 in Pittsburgh a week ago.
“We were disappointed after that effort,” says Niskanen. “That’s a game we thought we probably should have had. But we didn’t play well enough in Game 4. We took a deep breath and we kind of regrouped ourselves and said, ‘Let’s go after it in Game 5.’ And it took until the third period of Game 5 to get going and get rewarded for it.
“That was one of those moments where we could have just wilted – even in Game 5 we could have easily just packed it in – and said, ‘Man, this ain’t going well.’ But we just kept playing and kept playing, and here we are. We’ve got a chance to beat them in seven.”
They do, and after all the great work they’ve done to force a Game 7, the Caps must now win one more game to ensure the last two wins weren’t all for naught.
“I think we started out the series playing good and not getting the results we wanted,” says Caps defenseman John Carlson. “Guys started squeezing the stick a little bit tighter and tried to do different things instead of doing the same things over and over, and seeing the results come later, or whenever they did. But I’d say it’s built over the course of the entire year.
“Certainly in the series, the explosion we had in [Game 5] in the third was a good confidence boost, and I think we played a really good game [Monday]. Every game is always different in a series; there are changes all over the place. So you’ve got to adapt and work your way through it and make sure that you’re dictating it as much as possible.”
Both teams have had their share of Game 7 experiences over the years. Washington heads into a deciding seventh game for the 10
th time in 15 playoff series since the Alex Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom began with the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs. Wednesday’s game will be the 15
th Game 7 in Capitals history, and its sixth in the last six years.
“I think experience helps,” says Pens captain Sidney Crosby. “I think a lot of guys on both sides have been in this situation. It comes down to one game, and finding a way to execute when it means the most.”
The Caps have thrived on adversity throughout the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs, and they’ve played some of their best hockey of the postseason in these last two games while their backs were to the wall and they were staring down the prospect of elimination.
“I’m not sure if momentum exists between games,” says Niskanen. “It might. But we got a little confidence boost out of the last four periods. We know that we’re going to have to play probably our best game of the series to beat them in the seventh game at home. We’re excited for that opportunity and that challenge.”
Now, the Capitals have the defending champs facing elimination as well. The eyes of the hockey world will be on Washington on Wednesday.
“We’re going to see, for the first time in this series, that Pittsburgh has their back against the wall as well,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz. “So you’re going to see their best game and their most desperate game of the series. And we still have our back against the wall. So I don’t know if there is anything that we need to say.
“We gave ourselves the opportunity to continue to play hockey. Other than that – [Monday’s] game, the momentum, the score and all of that – nothing really translates into Game 7. It’s its own entity. And if we want to keep playing, we’re going to have to be at our best.”