And so we’ve come to this. Game 7. The Capitals have forced the Pittsburgh Penguins into a winner take all showdown on Wednesday in Verizon. Here are six keys to Wednesday’s Game 7 for the Caps:
1. Score first
The team to score first has won five of six games this series and it’s not hard to figure out why. Both teams have looked completely different when playing from behind. Pittsburgh’s offense is a quick strike, counteroffensive team that likes turning mistakes into odd man rushes and their speed makes those counters lethal. The problem is, at least in this series, the Penguins’ offense has seemingly become dependent on those counters. That’s okay if you’re ahead, but it is difficult to come back from when trailing especially given Washington’s overwhelming shot advantage. That’s when those possession stats really start to matter. As for the Caps, they are a much stronger team when they are patient with the puck. As soon as they start to trail, their shot selection deteriorates as they start firing the puck on net from everywhere as opposed to setting up better opportunities. If you need even more convincing, here's an important stat: The team that scores first in Game 7 is 124-42 all-time including a 5-0 mark in 2016.
2. Avoid 4-on-4
Saying “take fewer penalties” is about as profound as saying “score more than the Penguins,” but for the Caps they need to need to be as disciplined as possible not just to avoid giving up power plays, but also so they can avoid going 4-on-4. Despite all their skill, Washington is horrible when it comes to 4-on-4 play. Through the regular season and the playoffs combined, the Caps have scored only once at 4-on-4. How many goals have they given up? Six, including two on the same penalty in Game 6 on Monday. Washington needs to go into Game 7 with the mentality that matching minors are as dangerous as giving up a power play and avoid it at all costs.
3. Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov must produce
Everyone knows how good Alex Ovechkin is and the Penguins will do everything they can to stifle him offensively, but in Washington’s three wins this series, two other players have proven to be critical. In the Caps’ three wins, Backstrom has three goals and two assists. In the Caps’ three losses, he has only one goal and one assist and was held scoreless in two of those games. Similarly, Kuznetsov has tallied two goals and three assists in three wins this series and only two goals in three losses.
4. Braden Holtby must outplay Marc-Andre Fleury
In all three of Washington’s wins, Holtby has outplayed his Pittsburgh counterpart. Far too much blame was being put on Holtby’s shoulders early in the series for the Caps’ struggles. There’s not much a goalie can do against 2-on-1s and breakaways. The problem wasn’t that Holtby was playing poorly, but he wasn’t stealing any games for the Caps either. Sometimes you need those big saves to spark the team. That was definitely the case in Game 5. Just as the noose began to tighten in the third period, Holtby came up with a few key saves and suddenly Washington went from facing elimination to a 4-2 win.
5. Get better quality shots
The shot disparity between the two teams has been a topic of conversation throughout. When the Caps fell to 3-1 after four games, many were left scratching their heads wondering how could Washington be outshooting Pittsburgh so badly and yet still be losing the series? The answer is poor shot selection. Not all shots are created equal. While Barry Trotz has stressed getting net-front presence, that doesn’t mean just firing shots from the blue line through traffic. Let’s face it, those shots are more likely to get blocked before they ever reach Fleury than they are to get on net. One of the major factors in Washington’s turnaround to this point has been better shot selection. In the three games Pittsburgh has won, the Penguins blocked over 28 shots per game. In the three games the Caps have won, the Penguins blocked only 17 shots per game. That is a clear indication of better shot selection from Washington. They are being more selective, more patient and getting better quality shots.
6. Stay loose
When the Caps went down 3-1, Trotz stressed to the media that he wanted to see more joy in his team’s game. The players all talked about the need to stay loose. You can see the results. Facing elimination and with everyone already chalking this series up as yet another playoff failure for the Caps, Washington had nothing to lose in Games 5 and 6. They played loose and started enjoying themselves and you could see it in their play. After winning two games and reaching Game 7 at Verizon Center, however, now there is something to lose. The Capitals cannot let the pressure change the way they have played the last two games. They need to stay loose, stay aggressive and not play tentatively. That’s when the Penguins take control.
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