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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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Alex Ovechkin challenges Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin to shave while in isolation

Alex Ovechkin challenges Ilya Kovalchuk, Evgeni Malkin to shave while in isolation

While we all focus on social distancing and staying at home to prevent the spread of coronavirus, this difficult time has basically given us a license to take time off from shaving. 

Don't tell that to Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, who has seemingly started a new shaving challenge on Instagram with his wife, Nastya (music NSFW). 

As Ovechkin goes for the clean shave with Nastya dancing by his side, the caption translates to him challenging fellow Russian hockey stars Ilya Kovalchuk and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin. 

Neither player has considerable facial hair, but credit to Ovechkin finding another way to keep busy during isolation. Even if he's fraternizing with a Penguin. 

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With NHL season paused, a ranking of Capitals' best wins of 2019-20: No. 4

With NHL season paused, a ranking of Capitals' best wins of 2019-20: No. 4

While we wait for the NHL to hopefully resume its season, NBC Sports Washington is looking back at the 20 best wins of the Capitals' season so far. Mark Zaner, producer for Caps Faceoff Live and Caps Overtime Live, has watched every game. His rankings continue with No. 4, a 5-2 win over the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 16 that featured a bloodied Alex Ovechkin getting revenge against the Devils and Braden Holtby getting a fancy new hat. 

WHAT HAPPENED 

Ovechkin made his presence felt in the first period. He scored on a blistering one-timer during a 5-on-3 power play to get the Caps on the board first. Then with less than a minute remaining, after Nicklas Backstrom won an offensive zone draw, Ovechkin picked up the loose puck and fired a wrister that Louis Domingue never saw. 

  

Just 16 seconds in the second period, Ovechkin got some help. Lars Eller’s forecheck forced New Jersey into a turnover. Eller and Richard Panik eventually found Carl Hagelin in front of the net for the easy score. Hagelin’s goal came on Cory Schneider, who replaced Domingue at intermission. 

  

Despite being dead last in the Metro Division, the Devils didn’t roll over. Wayne Simmonds scored less than a minute after Hagelin’s goal. Blake Coleman scored shorthanded for his 19th of the season early in the third period to make it 3-2. 

Order was eventually restored. Jakub Vrana took advantage of a bad clearing attempt by Pavel Zacha and snuck one through Schneider. And at the 15:42 mark, the Capitals put the game away for good. Tom Wilson made one of the best passes of the season right to Ovechkin on the doorstep. Washington wins 5-2. 

  

MEMORABLE MOMENTS 

This was Ovechkin’s second hat trick of the season. It looked like it would be a rough night early on for the Captain. On one of his first shifts of the night, Ovechkin took a high stick from Miles Wood that drew blood. Ovi spent most of the period getting stitched up in the dressing room. He returned to the game just in time to score two goals in the final five minutes of the period. Don’t make Ovechkin angry, you won’t like him when he’s angry. 

  

Ilya Samsonov continued a brilliant stretch of games. He made one of the more remarkable saves of his young career. 

  

WHY IT WAS SIGNIFICANT 

Just five days earlier, the Caps hosted New Jersey and lost 5-1. It was arguably their worst game of the season. Washington didn’t take the Devils lightly in this contest and got a much needed two points with the All-Star break looming. 

Ovechkin scored career goals 687, 688 and 689. That put him one behind Mario Lemieux for 10th place on the all-time scoring list. He would jump Super Mario less than 48 hours later. 
 
WHAT WE WERE TALKING ABOUT 

When throwing hats on the ice, fans usually just chuck cheap baseball caps and toques. This is the first time I can remember someone throwing a women’s fedora on the ice. 

  

Braden Holtby pulls off the look well. The whole incident begs the question: who wears a fedora to a hockey game? 

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