The 60-Minute Season –
Decisive seventh games are nothing new to these parts. Tonight’s Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins is the 15
in Capitals history. It’s Washington’s sixth Game 7 in the last six years, and this is the 10
Game 7 for the Capitals since Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom came into the league. It’s the fourth time Ovechkin and Backstrom will play a Game 7 as the Caps try to advance to the Eastern Conference final.
“Honestly, we feel great,” says Ovechkin. “We’re ready to go. It’s Game 7, it’s the biggest game of the year. It’s a huge opportunity for us to move forward.”
Tonight’s game also marks the fourth time the Caps have forced a Game 7 after being down 3-1 in the series.
After dropping the first two games of the series on home ice and still being in a 3-1 hole after coming back from Pittsburgh, the Caps won each of the last two games to keep their season alive.
“I think we’ve earned this opportunity,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz, “and all it is is an opportunity. Game 7s are special, they’re exciting, enjoy it. See if you can make the best of it.”
After 82 regular season games and getting through the first round of the playoffs, the entire season comes down to tonight’s game for both sides. At stake is a trip to the Eastern Conference final series to face the Ottawa Senators.
“I think the most important thing is that you control what you can,” says Penguins coach Mike Sullivan. “We’re excited about this opportunity. This is why we’re all in this business; we love the competition, we love the opportunity to compete in order to attain the ultimate goal, and these types of moments are the most exciting moments to be a part of. I think that’s the way our whole group is looking at it, myself included. This is a great experience. It’s a great opportunity for all of us. We’re excited to play.”
The Penguins played and won one Game 7 contest en route to the Stanley Cup championship last spring, defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in a decisive seventh game in the Eastern Conference final.
“If you play Game 7, it’s always 50/50,” says Pens center Evgeni Malkin. “No one is favored. We know we have a good team, we know we have a good goalie. We know if we play how we want and how we can, 100 percent we can win. We won three games before; it’s just one more game.
“[The Caps] think they won an easy game [Monday] and they think they will win Game 7. I say no. We have a great team. I believe in my team and I believe in my teammates. We need to understand we have great experience before. We’ve played Game 7 before. Play the same. The first period is very important, and be ready.”
This is the second time in six years the Caps have faced the defending Stanley Cup champions in a Game 7 of a playoff series. Way back in 2012 when playoff seedings actually made sense, the seventh-seeded Caps stunned the second-seeded Boston Bruins in a first-round series, advancing to the second round when Joel Ward scored in overtime of Game 7 in Boston.
“Our backs have been against the wall for two games, and now theirs are, too,” says Caps right wing Justin Williams, who has registered seven goals and 14 points in seven career Game 7s, coming out on the winning side in all seven. “It’s going to be a fight of will. I can tell you one thing. I’m going to give everything I have tonight and make sure I don’t let my teammates down, and everyone in this room is going to do the same, and we’ll be fine.”
There are varying opinions as to whether momentum carries from one game to another in a playoff series, but if it does, the Caps are likely holding it after winning the last two games of the set to force Game 7.
“Obviously we didn’t play the way we wanted to play at all our last game,” says Pens defenseman Olli Maatta. “But you’ve got to have a short memory. That’s past. It’s one game. The winner continues its journey, and the other one goes home. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Pittsburgh hasn’t played well over the last two games, and watching the six games in the series to date, one gets the sense the Pens haven’t played to their ceiling yet.
“I don’t know what it was,” says Pens winger Conor Sheary. “Maybe we were up 3-1 in the series and we thought it was going to be easy, maybe a little bit. But tonight, we just have to focus on one game. That’s in the past and we’re worried about this one game ahead of us.”
Washington limited the Pens to just 18 shots on net in Monday’s Game 6, Pittsburgh’s second chance to extinguish the Capitals. Half of those shots came in the third period.
“Tough game for us,” says Malkin, “but we need to just forget [Game 6]. It’s bad luck [Monday] for us, nothing worked. No power play, no [penalty killing], no puck, no five-on-five. But we still have one chance to get one win.”
As to why we haven’t seen the Pens at their best just yet, that’s a mystery.
“I don’t know,” says Pens winger Patric Hornqvist. “It’s hard to say. We’re playing against a good team, so I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to have our best game tonight and we’ll see where it takes us.”
Washington has outscored the Penguins 8-2 in the last four periods, and while nothing that happened in the past matters as far as Game 7 is concerned, having the confidence that they can play that well in all three zones against Pittsburgh should be useful in terms of trying to seize momentum early in Wednesday’s Game 7.
“I don’t think our approach should change,” says Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen. “I think the focus is on how we play and how hard we are going to have to play. We’re going to need our best to beat them. But of course it’s going to be a lot tougher game.
“The fourth win is always the hardest, and now they’re in that position. But for us, it’s got to be a focus on how well we can play. How quick we can move the puck efficiently and execute, and we’re going to have to win battles, a lot of the things that have given us success in the last two games.”
Toll Taking –
One of the reasons we haven’t seen the Pens at their best could be because of the punishment they’ve absorbed in 11 postseason games against division rivals Columbus and Washington this spring.
The Capitals have outhit the Pens by a combined total of 215-159 in the series, and Pittsburgh has not had the services of defenseman Trevor Daley (lower body injury) since the third period of Game 5. Washington also owns a 423-270 lead in shot attempts in the series, indicating it has spent a fair amount of time in Pittsburgh ice. That can take a physical toll in terms of chasing the puck as well as in absorbing hits.
“First of all, it’s nothing new to this team,” says Sullivan. “I think lots of teams try to play that way against us to neutralize our attack. I don’t think it’s anything that our team isn’t accustomed to playing through. I think the best way to play against it is to play to our strengths and use our quickness as best we can. We’ve got to move the puck quickly and we’ve got to get our feet moving, so that we have the ability to use the aggression to our favor. But I don’t think it’s anything that our team is not accustomed to.
“There are teams that try to play a heavy game against us to take our speed away – or whatever it may be – on a number of occasions through the regular season. We’ve gone through it in the playoffs with different teams. We’re certainly accustomed to playing through this stuff, and I think our guys are determined to play through it. And the way to play through it is to make sure that we don’t get caught up on somebody else’s game. We’ve just got to try to play our game as best we can.”
It may not be Pittsburgh’s game, but it’s an integral part of Washington’s game and its identity, and the Caps will continue on that track tonight in Game 7.
“No one likes getting hit,” says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. “I don’t think anyone would say they like getting hit. Their [defensemen] know we’re coming, and our [defensemen] have been tough on their forwards, and that needs to continue. That’s the way we’ve had success. When we’re taking it to them, when we’re finishing our checks, when we’re playing that heavy, fast style, that’s when this team is at our best. Ever since we’ve been down 3-1, we’ve been talking about going out there and doing it. It’s a Game 7 and we’ve got to go out there and perform and get the job done.”
Thrive At Five-On-Five –
Pittsburgh won the first two games of this series at Verizon Center, scoring a total of seven goals at five-on-five in those two games. In the four games since then, the Pens have scored a pair of power play goals, they’ve scored a pair of six-on-five goals and they’ve scored a pair of four-on-four goals. But they’ve only managed three five-on-five goals in the last four contests.
“I know we can be a whole lot better with our execution and the decisions we make with the puck,” says Sullivan. “I don’t think we’ve given ourselves the opportunity to establish the type of game that we want to play. But you have to give Washington credit as well. They’re playing extremely well and they’re putting a lot of pressure on us, and we’ve got to execute better to handle that pressure.”
The Caps have been adept at neutralizing Pittsburgh’s counter-attack in the last two games, and that’s a big part of the Pens’ offense. It was actually Washington that had an inordinate amount of odd-man rushes in Monday’s Game 5.
Sullivan believes his team needs to do better at puck placement when it attempts to enter Washington ice tonight.
“I think when we’re putting it in, we’re not putting it in with a purpose, per se,” says Sullivan. “We’re getting isolated pressure on it as opposed to cooperative pressure. And I think that’s the important message.
“We’ve got to do a better job with our puck placement and how we manage the puck coming through the neutral zone, and we’ve got to put pucks into areas where we have got an opportunity to get it back. That’s the most important thing. There are a lot of things that go into that, but that’s something that we’ve discussed here over the last couple of days and we’ll continue to work on for Game 7 here.”
“We need to get more zone time,” says Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. “I think we can wear them down a little bit more there and get into their zone a little bit more often. I think if we do a good job of that, then everything else will follow.”
In The Nets –
Braden Holtby gets the net for Washington, making the 59
start of his Stanley Cup playoff career. He’ll be aiming for his 30
career playoff win and looking to nudge his record over the .500 mark; he sits at 29-29 lifetime coming into Wednesday’s game. Holtby is 5-7 in his postseason career against Pittsburgh. In all five of the victories, he has permitted exactly two goals. In all seven of his losses, he has surrendered three or more.
Holtby is 2-3 in his five career Game 7 appearances to date, and he has a 2.11 GAA and a .921 save pct. in those contests. He has permitted two or fewer goals in four of those five Game 7s.
“It’s obviously an exciting time. But you’ve been through a few and you grow up a little experience-wise. You focus on what you have to do to be successful. It’s your job and that’s what you’re trained to do, is execute in pressure situations. That’s what we’ve worked towards all year, so that’s what our goal is.”
For the seventh game in this series and the 12
time in the postseason this spring, the Pens will go with Marc-Andre Fleury in goal. The Caps scored just nine goals on 144 shots (.938 save pct.) against Fleury in the first four games of this series, but they’ve reached him for nine more in 58 shots (.845 save pct.) in the last two games.
Fleury is in the net for Pittsburgh because No. 1 netminder Matt Murray incurred a lower body injury during warm-ups before the Pens’ series opener against Columbus in the first round of the playoffs. For the first time in these playoffs, Murray is now healthy enough to dress and he will do so tonight as the backup to Fleury.
With his No. 1 now healthy enough to play, you’ve got to think Sullivan might have a short leash with Fleury tonight, with the game, the series and the season on the line. Even in surrendering nine goals in the last two contests, Fleury was among the Pens’ best players in those two games. His play in the playoffs this spring is the reason Pittsburgh has a chance to move on with a Game 7 win tonight.
All Lined Up –
Here is how we expect the Capitals to look when they take the ice for Wednesday’s Game 7. Pittsburgh’s lineup will be a game-time decision, likely including the players listed below:
65-Burakovsky, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
8-Ovechkin, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
No Capitals Injuries
59-Guentzel, 87-Crosby, 72-Hornqvist
43-Sheary, 71-Malkin, 17-Rust
62-Hagelin, 13-Bonino, 81-Kessel
14-Kunitz, 7-Cullen, 37-Rowney
6-Daley (lower body)
58-Letang (neck surgery)