With a game 7 looming, it ends in handshakes tonight, no matter the outcome. Nobody doubted that the rematch between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals in Round Two would be physical. It’s well known that the Capitals feel like their second round exits are underwhelming and this series must’ve felt like yet another early second round exit once again when at a moment they trailed the series 3-1. With how the series had been going, the Washington Captains’ words struck true once more. “Every year, lots of expectations,” Ovechkin had said. “Lots of great players, but something we’re missing. This group of guys can do better than be in just the second round…,” he had mentioned from the visiting locker room at the end of their exit last year.
Being another notch in the Penguins ledger on the way to a Stanley Cup must’ve been salt in the wound of the early exit. The Washington Capitals have not reached the cusp of the sport in spite of having a Conference Championship and 3 Presidents Trophies; the latter back to back in the last 2 years. Ovechkin’s desire to hoist Lord Stanley has been frustrating, to say the least as he’s admitted himself: “Everybody was in the mood, like, ‘Jesus, season is over, and we didn’t get success.’ We didn’t get what we wanted to get. Obviously, it’s frustrating. Just a brutal feeling.”
It’s that level of desperation that drove the Capitals to hold a ‘players only’ closed-door meeting. After falling behind 2-0 to the Penguins in their own Washington DC home, the Capitals looked to change the tides of the series. The Penguins, until then, had surged after stellar performances from veteran goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, even in a game 2 first period that seemed where the Capitals had been rising to the challenge. However, with a push led by Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the Capitals dropped their second straight game at home in the series. When the Series shifted to Pittsburgh, Ovechkin mentioned they had other plans in mind. In came a dressing of 7 Defensemen and Matt Niskanen with a play that made headlines and put the controversy in the hockey world. A cross-check to Sidney Crosby’s face, that came with a concussion, sidelined the Captain for a game the Capitals took in overtime.
Despite the Penguins giving an inspired performance without their captain to solidify the series 3-1 at home, the Penguins haven’t found a way to put the Capitals away. Since then, even though the Penguins got their Captain back, the Pittsburgh team has fallen 2 games as the Capitals surged to force a game 7 tonight in Washington. The last two performances by the Pittsburgh Penguins have been lackluster, with no real sign of urgency with the possibility to put the Capitals away. In game 5, the Penguins blew a 2-1 lead in the third period after playing a rather lackluster preventive style of defense that the Capitals capitalized on. When game 6 came around it was announced that Trevor Daley would be out with a lower-body injury decimating the defensive core even more.
The scoreboard read 5-2 at the end of the 3rd, but that was not telling of the game. Despite an impressive effort by Marc-Andre Fleury, the scoreboard read 5-0 for the majority of the 3rd period. The Washington Capitals played a good trap game which stifled the Penguins defense leading to several odd-man rushes and more than a few turnovers. With the longer the game went on, you could see the frustration of Penguins leaders like Sidney Crosby, who was often seen trading checks with whoever covered him while the Capitals focused on their game. The problem lies in the Penguins defense, as well as the lack of offense as crazy as that sounds. Game 6 featured no transition game for the Penguins, accompanied by an abysmal 10 shots on goal at the 3rd when they had four power plays with no reward. The Pittsburgh team looked sluggish and uninterested at best, while the Washington Capitals knew they had to get to business to live to fight another day.
Much of this could’ve been the line chances that coach Sullivan had stuck to the whole game or perhaps the incredibly frustrating predictability of the Penguins Power Play; or the lack of desire to shoot the puck on net. The Penguins scored two goals on two shots in the dying moments of the 3rd, so it boggles the mind why they shot so little in such a crucial game. An image that sticks with Penguins fans is Evgeni Malkin on a PP chance, who passed on 3 consecutive one-timer opportunities, despite the need to score.
Regardless of what was plaguing the Penguins, it’s hard to contend with the fact that there’s more pressure on the Washington end than the Penguins tonight. The Capitals and Penguins have met four times in a game 7 and the Penguins have won them all, eliminating the Washington Capitals, including the road to the 2009 Stanley Cup. Captain Sidney Crosby is 3-2 over his career in game 7’s. Meanwhile, the Capitals have lost twice as many game 7’s as they’ve won since Alexander Ovechkin arrived in Washington. As for home-ice, the Penguins have a 5-0 record in game 7’s, which is not only the best in NHL postseason history but also in the MLB and NBA. Also, experience will be a big factor in this game. The reigning Stanley Cup Champions know what it takes to take a game 7 at home to advance and in the end, it might just boil down to that.
Tonight as we face game 7 of the Second Round, one thing is certain: this won’t be an easy task for either team. However, isn’t that why the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win in all professional sports?
-Matt Murray will be the backup goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins tonight after injuring his groin in the 1st round 1st game warm-ups.
-Fleury has a .910 SV% in this series (.921 through the playoffs, which is ranked 5th of the 8 starting goalies that played/are playing in the second round, ranked 3rd in number of shots against)
-Holtby has a .878 SV% in this series (.908 through the playoffs, which is ranked 7th out of the 8 starting goalies that played/are playing in the second round, ranked 6th in number of shots against).
-Capitals haven’t advanced past the second round since 1998.
-Fleury on his team tonight: “I think we will be excited. We will be intense. It is a big game. I think we are confident going into the game.”
“We have to embrace the moment. You can write your own legacy here… It’s all about your heart.” -Hornqvist on tonight’s game.
-Cullen on drawing from Tampa game 7 experience: “No question. We’ve played on the big stage plenty of times and we responded to a lot of adversity and handled the pressure very well. So tomorrow’s another opportunity to prove that.”
“We’ve got some guys that have been through a lot. This team has a lot of experience in these types of situations. And I think they have that experience to draw on that should serve us well for tomorrow night. But certainly our team is excited about this opportunity. We believe in this group.” -Coach Sullivan