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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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4 keys for the Caps to win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final

4 keys for the Caps to win Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final

It all starts Monday!

The Vegas Golden Knights will host the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final as both teams look to take early control of the series.

Can the Caps steal one on the road to start? Here are four keys to winning Game 1.

Win the first period

The Golden Knights have not played a game since May 20. While rest can benefit a team at this time of the year, there is such a thing as too much rest and over a week would certainly qualify. If there is absolutely any rust in Vegas’ game to start, the Caps need to take advantage.

T-Mobile Arena and the Vegas crowd have already built a reputation in year one. The atmosphere is going to be electric, but the Caps can combat that with a good start to the game and by scoring first.

Vegas is 10-1 when scoring first this postseason. If they are able to come in and get on the board right off the bat in the first period after seven full days between games, that does not bode well for the Caps’ chances.

Don’t allow Marc-Andre Fleury to pick up where he left off

Fleury is having a postseason for the ages, but it’s hard to believe momentum is simply going to carry over to a new series after such a lengthy break. Players are not simply going to pick up where they left off and play as if there’s no rust to shake off. The need to get to Fleury as early as possible.

What that means is getting traffic in front of the net, making him move, contesting rebounds, making him feel uncomfortable as much as possible and generating quality offensive chances.

The Caps can do is starting flinging pucks at the net and giving him easy saves. Getting 12 shots in the first period would be great, but not if they are all perimeter shots for easy saves that help bring Fleury's confidence back to where it was in the Western Conference Final.

Limit the turnovers

Turnovers are blood in the water for Vegas. The high-effort, high-speed style of play of the Golden Knights has caught several players off guard at points this postseason. No one can afford to be casual with the puck at any point in this game because Vegas has a knack for turning those turnovers into goals.

Winning Game 1 on the road will be hard enough without giving the Golden Knights at any help.

Shut down the top line

Only three players have reached double digits in points for the Golden Knights in the playoffs: Jonathan Marchessault (18), Reilly Smith (16) and William Karlsson (13). What do these three have in common? They all play on Vegas’ top line. To compare, the Caps have seven players in double digits.

Much has been made of Vegas’ offensive depth and their ability to roll four lines, but the play of Fleury in net has really masked how much this team relies on its top line for offense. The Caps need to get Dmitry Orlov and Matt Niskanen on the ice against them and focus on shutting them down. Force the Golden Knights to win with their other three lines and see if they can.

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MacLellan on facing McPhee in Stanley Cup Final: 'It's a little awkward'

MacLellan on facing McPhee in Stanley Cup Final: 'It's a little awkward'

LAS VEGAS—One of the more intriguing storylines of this year’s Stanley Cup Final centers on a couple of men who make their living behind the scenes: Brian MacLellan of the Caps and his counterpart with the Golden Knights, George McPhee.

They’ve known each other for 40-plus years, dating back to their time as bantam teammates in Canada. And, starting Monday, they’ll be on opposing sides, with hockey’s Holy Grail at stake.  

Caps fans, of course, are familiar with McPhee’s work. He served as GM in Washington from 1997-2014 and drafted 13 players who are currently on the Caps’ roster. McPhee was also the Caps’ rookie GM the last time the franchise appeared in the Final 20 years ago.

But here’s what Caps fans might not know about the connection that MacLellan and McPhee share:

  • They were born in a few months apart in 1958 in Ontario.
  • They captured the Canadian Jr. A championship as members of the 1977-78 Guelph Platers.
  • Both were on scholarship at Bowling Green from 1978-1982.
  • They played together with the New York Rangers in 1985-86.
  • And, finally, they worked side-by-side in Washington from 2000-2014. After working his way up from the scouting ranks, MacLellan replaced his managerial mentor, who had been let go following a disappointing season.

 

“It's kind of a weird experience,” MacLellan said. “We kind of have been texting back and forth how strange it feels to have this line up the way it has. It's a little awkward, but it's going to be a fun experience, I hope.”

At one point, MacLellan got choked up when talking about his relationship with McPhee, who’ll become the first GM in the expansion era to face a former team of which he served as GM.

“We played junior together and then we both went to Bowling Green on scholarships, so we lived together,” he said, fighting back tears. “It was fun.”

MacLellan also acknowledged that the two weren’t as tight—for a time, at least—after he replaced McPhee four years ago. McPhee also hinted at some strain, though he said the two men had dinner at the most recent GM’s meetings.

“Not as close, I don't think,” MacLellan said of his relationship with McPhee following McPhee’s dismissal. “A little bit of communication here and there. But I think it just took a little time for things to evolve. I think he needed a break from the game, needed a break from how it went down for him here and it just took time.”

When the two negotiated during last year’s expansion draft, which saw McPhee pluck promising you blueliner Nate Schmidt from Washington’s roster, MacLellan said the two old friends keep things “businesslike.”

“He was all business,” MacLellan said. “He wasn’t giving in on anything.”

Although McPhee drafted most of the core players who delivered the Caps to this year’s Final, MacLellan also deserves credit for getting this team over the second round hump. Among his first acquisitions were defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, a pair of vets that helped shore up a shaky defense. MacLellan also added forwards T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller via trade in recent seasons and, this year, added defenseman Michal Kempny, a particularly shrewd move that bolstered a blue line that needed a little tightening.

As weird as the next few days will be for MacLellan as he faces his old friend, it figures to even more strange for McPhee, who will look down from the GM’s suite on Monday and see not one, but two teams that he built on the ice. McPhee also pilfered a handful of current and former front office employees from Caps, including Goalie Coach Dave Prior, while building the Golden Knights.

Indeed, the history between MacLellan and McPhee runs deep. But for the next couple of weeks, they’ll put aside their decades-old friendship as their clubs battle for the NHL’s ultimate prize.
 

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