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6 keys to a Caps' win in Game 7

6 keys to a Caps' win in Game 7

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.

RELATED: Making sense of the Crosby concussion saga

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.

MORE CAPITALS: Did Malkin guarantee a Game 7 win for Pittsburgh?

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The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The 2 biggest questions the Caps still need answered after 10 games

The Capitals are 10 games into the 2019-20 season. For the most part, things have gone well. The team is 6-2-2 and sits atop the Metropolitan Division. John Carlson leads the entire NHL with 18 points which puts him in some pretty elite company. Ilya Samsonov looks as good as advertised while Braden Holtby looks like his old self after a brief reset. Alex Ovechkin has six goals already and T.J. Oshie leads the team with seven. Plus, both special teams units look improved.

That’s a pretty solid start.

But there remain two important questions that still need answers.

Who should play on the right on the second defensive pair?

Michal Kempny finally returned after missing the first eight games of the season. He started the last two on the third pair, but is working his way back up to the top pairing. Once he gets there, the defense will finally be at full strength.

That gives Washington a pretty solid top three of Kempny and Carlson, plus Dmitry Orlov. But who should play on the right with Orlov?

Jensen had the first crack at it to start the season, but after some up-and-down play, Radko Gudas was bumped up for a few games. Since Kempny returned, Gudas moved back down to third to play with him and Jensen moved back with Orlov.

So far Gudas has been as good as advertised, but playing well on the third pair does not necessarily mean he should be on the second.

Jensen was one of Detroit’s top defensemen when he was acquired by the Caps. The team is still waiting for that player to emerge. It has been a tough transition for him to Washington's system and, while he has shown flashes of strong play, he remains largely inconsistent. His Corsi-For percentage at 5-on-5 is the second-worst on the team at 46.82-percent. He is one of only three Caps below 50-percent with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Tyler Lewington being the other two.

The issue for the Caps may be that they have two high-quality third pair right defensemen in Jensen and Gudas and only one top-four right defenseman in Carlson which leaves a hole on that second pair.

When it comes to the defense, we should reserve all judgment until Kempny is back to playing on the top-pair full-time so we can see this defense at full strength. Until then, however, the second pair remains a question mark.

Can the Caps get enough production from the third line?

There wasn’t much offense to speak of from the Carl Hagelin, Lars Eller, Richard Panik trio and it didn’t take Todd Reirden long to split them up. Hagelin is the Swiss Army knife of the Caps’ offense, but his offensive production is limited. Panik meanwhile has had a tough start to his Caps’ tenure with zero points and is on long-term injured reserve.

As always, the top six for this team remains lethal and the additions of Brendan Leipsic and Garnet Hathaway to the fourth line have been home runs. The third line is the only one that remains a question and it may need a boost from a player like Jakub Vrana, who has been playing there the last few games with Eller and Hathaway, to help spark some production. Ultimately, however, you would like to see Vrana back in the top six and Hathaway back on the fourth. Hagelin, Eller and Panik are the best fit for the third, but if they can’t produce together it may mean weakening the top six or the fourth line by moving players around to find a combination that produces on that third line.

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John Carlson's seven assists nabs him the NHL's second star of the week

John Carlson's seven assists nabs him the NHL's second star of the week

John Carlson has opened this season with monster numbers, putting up three goals and 15 assists in 10 games. He currently leads the league in points with 18. 

The NHL has noticed and named Carlson their second star of the week. Boston's David Pastrnak got the first star, while Buffalo's Carter Hutton was named the third star.

In four games last week, Carlson notched one goal and seven assists for eight points. He currently leads the league in assists with 15.

Carlson is also in historic company. The only other two defensemen to score as many or more points than Carlson in the first 10 games of a season are Bobby Orr (2‑16—18 in 1969-70 and 5-13—18 in 1973-74, w/ Boston) and Paul Coffey (3-17—20 in 1988-89, w/ Pittsburgh).

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