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5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

5 keys for the Caps to win Game 6 and force a decisive Game 7 against the Lightning

The more you look at Monday's Game 6 between the Washington Capitals and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the more you realize this game is the most important game of Alex Ovechkin's career.

This is the first time Ovechkin and Co. have made it to the conference finals and it is the first time this postseason in which the Caps face elimination.

Here are the keys for the Caps to staving off elimination and forcing a Game 7:

1. Get off to a better start

It took Tampa Bay just 19 seconds to score in Game 5 and the score was 3-0 nothing before the Capitals really began to show any signs of life. They cannot allow the Lightning to jump all over them in the same way and take the crowd out of the game early.

With the game being in Washington, the Caps will have the crowd on their side. Use it.

The Caps have been at their best this series playing the trap, holding their own blue line and countering against Tampa Bay's aggressive defensemen leading to odd-man breaks. That's a hard gameplan to run if you're playing from behind. Scoring first would go a long way for Washington.

2. Stay out of the penalty box

Washington has given up six power play goals to Tampa Bay on just 15 opportunities in this series. That means the Lightning's power play is producing at a blistering rate of 40-percent. That's an insanely good power play rate and that may be putting it mildly.

So far, the penalty kill has had no answer for how to shut down a Tampa Bay unit that features Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov setting up for one-timers and being quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. That's a formidable cast.

If you can't beat it, then there's only one solution: Stay out of the box.

Despite everything that went wrong in Game 5, the one thing the Caps did right was not give up many penalties. They took only one on the night and even that one was avoidable as Brett Connolly got caught holding Brayden Point trying to get around him to get the puck.

3. Win the top line matchup

The Lightning have found success matching their fourth line against Ovechkin. Of his six points this series, only two of them (one goal, one assist) have come at 5-on-5. That's not good enough.

It's gut check time. The Caps need their best players to be at their best and that means Ovechkin has to win the matchup against Chris Kunitz, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan. In Game 5, Tampa Bay's fourth line actually outscored Ovechkin's line in 5-on-5 play 2-0.

Washington will not win this game if the fourth line outscores Ovechkin's line. It's just that simple.

4. Take advantage of the power play opportunities

The Caps scored at least one power play goal in Game 1 and Game 2, both wins. They have not scored any since and have lost all three games since. They scored on three of seven opportunities in the first two games and zero of seven opportunities in the last three.

Not a coincidence.

Granted, they did not draw any penalties in Game 5, but it seems unlikely the Lightning will stay out of the box for another sixty minutes. At some point, they will take a penalty and when they do, Washington must take advantage.

5. Win the goalie matchup

Not much attention has been paid to Braden Holtby in this series. The Caps are not facing elimination because they have been getting bad goaltending, but when the Lightning needed Andrei Vasilevskiy to steal them a win and up his game to get them back into the series, he responded.

Vasilevskiy has been brilliant the last three games as he has turned aside 100 of the 106 shots he has faced for a .943 save percentage. For the series, Holtby has a save percentage of only .883.

Again, Washington is not down 3-2 in the series because of goaltending. Holtby has faced far fewer shots than Vasilevskiy and has been just about the only thing that has worked against Tampa Bay's lethal power play.

But as one of the team's top players, the Caps need Holtby to step up the way Vasilevskiy has. Game 6 will be about winning by any means necessary. If that means they need a hat trick from Ovechkin so be it. If that means they need Holtby to steal it for them, so be it.

Holtby has to be just as good as Vasilevskiy in Game 6, if not better, for Washington to come out on top.

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Capitals return home still short-handed, but with momentum after strong road trip

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Capitals return home still short-handed, but with momentum after strong road trip

The Capitals return home to play the Chicago Blackhawks (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington) after a successful road trip (3-1-0), but will still be without forwards Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie (upper-body injuries), who remain day-to-day, according to coach Todd Reirden.   

Here are four things to watch:

Holtby’s back

After missing three games with an upper-body injury of his own, Caps goalie Braden Holtby was thrown into the fire down 4-2 at Montreal on Monday. But he played lights out and matched Habs goalie Carey Price save-for-save, finishing with 22 as Washington rallied for a 5-4 overtime win. Holtby now feels good enough as he will start against the Blackhawks tonight. In his past four appearances, Holtby has stopped 116 of 122 shots on goal.

New-look Blackhawks

Chicago’s slow start cost Joel Quenneville his job on Nov. 6. An NHL coach getting fired is rarely news. But when it’s a guy who’s been in his post for more than a decade and has won three Stanley Cups it is still jarring. The results are mixed since Jeremy Colliton took over. Chicago lost his first two games behind the bench, but is 2-0-2 in its past four games. That’s a small step in the right direction, but the Blackhawks are in sixth place in the Central Division.

Wilsonnnnn!!!!!

This was supposed to be the day Tom Wilson returned to the lineup after his 20-game suspension. An arbitrator cut that short last week so Wilson played on all four games of the road trip and had a goal and four assists. Not a bad start. Wednesday he gets his first home game of the year and what should be a raucous reception from the faithful at Capital One Arena. 

Old mates

On Monday, the crowd at Bell Centre booed former Canadien Lars Eller, who promptly took the puck up ice and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. It was a great moment for a player who felt Montreal gave up on him way too soon when trading him to the Capitals. Michal Kempny knows how he feels. 

Languishing on the bench for most of last season in Chicago as a healthy scratch – he played just 31 games - Kempny sees his old team for the first time since helping Washington win a Stanley Cup. Quenneville is gone, but the defenseman would love to show the rest of the organization trading him was a mistake. 

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Capitals mailbag: What to do with Andre Burakovsky

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Capitals mailbag: What to do with Andre Burakovsky

It’s time for the weekly Capitals mailbag! Check out the Nov. 21 edition below. Have you got a Caps question you want to be answered in next week’s mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com

Please note some questions have been edited for clarity.

Without a clear go-to guy on the faceoff anymore, who takes the draw has become much more situational.

One thing that was not talked about all that much when the team lost Beagle was that not only was he the best faceoff player on the team, he was also the only right-shot center. Why does that matter? Consider a faceoff in the right circle on a defensive-zone draw. A left-shot center is going to sweep the puck to the center of the ice which is not ideal in the defensive zone. It’s no coincidence that the team signed a right-shot center Nic Dowd in the offseason. Travis Boyd shoots right as well.

If you notice, there are even times when T.J. Oshie lines up in the faceoff circle in place of Nicklas Backstrom and I’m not talking about when Backstrom is kicked out of the draw. I haven’t asked Reirden about this, but I suspect it is because Backstrom shoots left and Oshie shoots right.

So to answer your question, there’s no one player the Caps are looking to get on the ice when they need a draw. It depends on if the puck is on the offensive or defensive zone and in the left or right circle. It’s all a matter of what direction the team wants the puck to go.

Kevin J writes: At what point do you cut bait with a player (Burakovsky) that isn’t meeting expectations? And what do you think you could reasonably get in return?

There’s no question the Caps need more production out of Burakovsky who has only two goals and four points in 20 games. In the final year of his contract, his low production inevitably brings up questions about his future in Washington.

First, when considering a trade, it’s important to remember that all the reasons you want to trade a player away, an opposing general manager will know that. Opposing GMs know he has four points, they know he’s a streaky player and they will certainly know his injury history. The problem with trying to move him now is that the team would be selling low. As frustrating as his production can be, Brian MacLellan is not going to simply trade a player away that the team drafted for pennies on the dollar. He has to be able to get value in return or there is no point.

It’s also important to remember that, unless you get an NHL player in return, you have to find someone to plug into his spot in the lineup. Wayne Gretzky is not sitting in the press box waiting to step in. Are the Caps prepared to give a player like Dmitrij Jaskin an every-day, third-line role? That is probably what a Burakovsky trade would mean.

You also have to consider that Burakovsky is a pending restricted free agent. This will mean the team will retain his rights if and only if he is offered a qualifying offer equal to his current deal of $3 million. If an opposing general manager does not think he’s worth that, he won’t want to make a trade for a player knowing he won’t offer him a qualifying offer. That would mean trading for a player who could walk in the summer.

MacLellan went to great lengths to keep his championship roster together in the offseason. Trading Burakovsky would be trading a piece of that and losing the Burakovsky, Lars Eller, Brett Connolly line that has been effective in the past. He will only do that for the right deal and I believe the return on a Burakovsky trade would be too low to justify at this point.

The Caps may need to at least be open to offers considering Burakovsky’s continued inconsistent production, but I’m not sure there will be that much interest in him until he starts racking up more points.

The Capitals currently have the maximum of 23 players on the roster and are very close to the salary cap ceiling. Obviously, if they acquire a defenseman, that would mean reassigning Jonas Siegenthaler back to Hershey, but that does not clear up much cap space. Washington also has two extra forwards on the roster, but the team is not going to move any forwards until Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov get healthy and return to the lineup.

So yes, the Caps do have room on the roster to trade for a physical defenseman when they get healthy on offense, but they do not have much cap space. Plus, given how well Madison Bowey and Siegenthaler have played, I do not anticipate MacLellan trying that.

There is no question the Caps lost a lot of their physicality when Wilson and Orpik were both out, but Wilson is back, the team’s young defensemen are playing well and there seems to be no need for the team to pull the trigger on a trade.

Nathan S writes: Why does the NHL get away with being so secretive with injuries? Other leagues such as the NFL have very strict reporting requirements. It would seem this would be in best interest of player safety.

The upper-body, lower-body injuries are certainly frustrating to fans (and the media considering how often we get asked what a player’s specific injury is), but that’s not going away anytime soon. Gary Bettman said as much at a recent press conference announcing the league’s partnership with MGM Resorts. While you may believe it is in the best interest of players for teams to announce specific injuries, the league disagrees. The fear is that if you announce a player has a hand injury, you will see opponents go after a player’s hand. If you announce a player has a shoulder injury, opponents will go after a player’s shoulder. By being cryptic, therefore, teams are protecting their players.

The only thing that I believe could possibly change this is sports gambling. The more the NHL dips its toe into the world of sports gambling, the more pressure the league could start to feel from partners over revealing the specific nature of injuries. Otherwise, this is not going to change and it will continue to give the media and fans alike upper-body injuries…er, I mean headaches.

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in next week’s mailbag, send it in to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

Have a happy Thanksgiving, Caps nation!

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