The Caps overcame some bitter history last season when they won Game 7 of their Eastern Conference final against Tampa Bay on their way to a Stanley Cup championship. But this year, they have some demon spirits that have crawled into their game, not to mention a feisty Carolina team that looks hungry and determined. The cousins have some thoughts.
Peerless: Game 7. The ultimate test. Does last year’s win over Tampa Bay give the Caps something to build on here?
Fearless: Every team is different, but this team is less different than last year’s team and less different than most defending Stanley Cup champions. So, the reflex answer is to say that yes, this team has lessons learned from last year that can help them. But those come in two parts. For instance, if that game is a template, then one thing to remember is the importance of early pressure. The Caps scored first, just 62 seconds into the game to put Tampa Bay on their heels. But pressure means pressure at the other end, too. The Caps allowed the Lightning only ten first period shots and 19 shot attempts.
There was being disciplined. The Caps did take three penalties in that game, but two were coincidental with Tampa Bay penalties. The Caps would go shorthanded only once in that game, a third period penalty by Matt Niskanen when the Caps were already up, 3-0. Then again, you have to kill those chances, and the Caps did so effectively, denying the Lightning so much as a single power play shot on goal in two minutes on their only power play opportunity.
There was balance. Three Caps shared in the four goals in that game, and seven players combined for nine points. But the stars have to be stars, too. There was Ovechkin’s early goal. There was Nicklas Backstrom’s empty netter to seal the win with under four minutes left. There was John Carlson with an assist and a plus-3 rating, best on the team. On the other hand, there was secondary scoring. The difference in this game might have been Andre Burakovsky’s two goals. Tom Wilson had a pair of assists.
And, of course, there is goaltending. Braden Holtby was in a zone, stopping all 28 shots he faced, extending his consecutive shots stopped streak to 78 over the last 159:27 of that series. But there is also keeping the pressure off the goalie, and the Caps allowed only seven shots on goal in the third period of that Game 7 against Tampa Bay, none in the first ten minutes of that period, never letting the Lightning get a glimpse of a comeback. This isn’t a bad template for a victory on Wednesday night, and hopefully it is still in the Caps’ individual and collective memory banks.
Cheerless: Well, that was impressive, but I’m thinking “dance steps.”
Fearless: You know what he’d talking about, cousin?
Peerless: I have no clue…
Cheerless: Hey, over here, guys. Look at their recent history of Games 7. 2009 against the Rangers…win. 2009 against the Pens and 2010 against Montreal…losses. 2012 against Boston…win. 2012 and 2013 against the Rangers…losses. 2015 against the Islanders…win. 2015 against the Rangers and 2017 against the Penguins…losses. You guys ever hear of a “waltz?”
Fearless: Why cousin, I never thought of you as a Johann Strauss, the Younger, fan.
Cheerless: I was thinking more Bill Monroe and “The Tennessee Waltz.” But back to the series, it’s been win-loss-loss, win-loss-loss for this team in Games 7. Last year was a win. You do the math…er, steps. Then there is the place. Last year, the Caps won their Game 7 on the road. It evened their record in Games 7 on the road at 2-2 since 2007-2008.
Home has not been kind to the Caps in these situations, though. In fact, it’s been downright ugly. Grandma before she puts her teeth in ugly. The Caps are 1-4 in their last five Games 7 on home ice. They’ve been outscored, 16-5 in those games. They haven’t scored more than two goals in any of those five games, and they were shut out in their last two losses.
There is the power play. It has been OK for the Caps in this series, going 6-for-21 (28.6 percent/fourth of 16 playoff teams), but in seven home Games 7 since 2007-2008, they have one power play goal, and that one came against the Flyers in 2008 (they lost in overtime…on a power play goal). The Caps are without a power play goal in their last six Games 7 on home ice. The Caps might have learned lessons in last season’s Game 7 in Tampa Bay, but class isn’t over. There is the home ice final to deal with.
Peerless: Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin have certainly stepped up in a big way. Backstrom has five goals in six games, matching last year’s total posted in 20 games, and just one short of his career playoff best (six in 13 games in 2017). Ovechkin has four goals, on the same pace he had last year when he put up a league leading and career high of 15 goals in 24 games. The nine goals the two have are more than half the team’s total of 17 goals in this series. Stars have to be stars in big games, but who else needs to step up in this Game 7?
Cheerless: Calling Evgeny Kuznetsov…Calling Evgeny Kuznetsov. Yeah, he’s a star, but he ain’t been stepping up. He has five assists in six games, the same pace he had last year (20 in 24 games), but he does not have a goal yet. He had 23 goals in 63 career playoff games before this season, a 30-goal pace over 82 games. Maybe he's been playing hurt, but if he’s got a goal or two in him, now would be a good time to play it or them.
Fearless: We’ll go off the board here and say the Matt Niskanen/Dmitry Orlov defensive pair. Carolina has 13 even-strength goals in this series, and that pair has been on ice for six of them. If they are the top defensive pair on this team, they have to make sure the defense is applied. That neither has a goal in this series is something Caps fans would like to see remedied, but if Carolina does not score with that pair on the ice, given they are 1-2 in even strength ice time per game, the chances for the Caps winning improve.
Peerless: Bottom line, who wins? OK, we know who wins, but will it be a short night (a blowout) or a long one (overtime…s)?
Fearless: The Caps have won three home games by a combined 14-5 score. Two of the wins were of the multi-goal decision variety. The Caps have six first period goals in this series on home ice. They are 5-for-12 on the power play on home ice (41.7 percent). They are 12-for-13 killing penalties at Capital One Arena (92.3 percent). Caps win…short night.
Cheerless: This is the seventh time in franchise history that the Caps faced a team in a Game 7 on home ice for the first time. Nothing in the previous six suggests this will be anything but a tense, if not a long night. Islanders in 1987…four-overtime loss. Flyers in 1988…overtime win. Devils in 1988…one-goal loss. Penguins in 1992…two-goal loss, but a Penguins empty netter in the last minute. Rangers in 2009…one goal win off a third period tie-breaking goal. 2010 against Montreal…one-goal loss, featuring a disallowed Capitals goal in the third period that would have tied the game. Maybe the Caps’ history will change based on what they learned last year, but it would not be the way to bet. Long night. Long, long night.
In the end…
We’re at the end…of this series. For all the words above, this series comes down to one club. Carolina has had a reasonably consistent level of effort over the six games played so far. But wins and losses have come down to how the Caps have played and their intensity level. In the games in which intensity has been high and effort significant, they won. When they looked as if they were having a skate at Washington Harbour and letting Carolina dictate pace and tempo, they lost.
The added “X-factor” here is whether the Game 7 history on home ice creeps into the arena in the form of the Caps squeezing their sticks too tight. In seven Games 7 on home ice since 2007-2008, the Caps have never scored more than two goals. Braden Holtby will have to continue to be as sharp on home ice as he has been so far in this series (3-0, 1.65, .943, one shutout). But the Caps will have to break the “two-goal hole” to advance. It might not be a short night, but it will be a happy one.
Capitals 4 – Hurricanes 2