Do or Die: Pens, Caps gear up for Game 7
(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON -- The NHL's best regular season team is suddenly looking like the best team in the playoffs.
Trailing 2-1 and just 20 minutes from elimination in Game 5, the Washington Capitals scored eight straight goals over two games and find themselves with what feels like a commanding 3-3 tie as they prepare to host the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 Wednesday night.
Following Monday's 5-2 win, the Presidents' Trophy winners return home with a chance to exorcise several playoff demons, including an opportunity to beat the Penguins in the postseason for just the second time in 10 tries and reach the conference finals for the first time since 1997-98.
"It's right where we want it right now," Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said after Game 6.
Not so fast, countered Penguins center Evgeni Malkin.
"They think they won an easy game tonight. They think they can win Game 7. I say, 'No,"' Malkin told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We have a great team. I believe in my team. We need to understand that we've been in Game 7 before. We need to play the same. First period is really important. Be ready."
Pittsburgh's problem has been generating offense. In Game 6, the Penguins finished with 18 shots on goal, their lowest total in a playoff loss since 2001. The games are being played primarily in the Pittsburgh end and the Penguins are feeling the absence of defenseman Kris Letang and (in the last two games) goaltender Matt Murray.
"I know we can be a whole lot better with our execution and the decisions we've made with the puck," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I don't think we've given ourselves the opportunity to establish the type of game we want to play.
"But you have to give Washington credit as well. They're playing well, they're putting a lot of pressure on us and we've got to execute better to handle that pressure."
Washington coach Barry Trotz rolled the dice after a Game 4 loss and switched forwards Alex Ovechkin and Andre Burakovsky on lines one and three, and he got the desired result. Burakovsky has three goals in his last two games, and Ovechkin scored a big goal in Game 5.
"He was playing quite well in the third line," Trotz said of Burakovsky. "There (just) wasn't any finish in his game. We were just hoping maybe flipping him with Alex might get him going a little bit, but also we knew that Alex would give us a finisher on that third line."
Trotz also had praise for how Ovechkin handled the switch.
"One of the things about being a captain is you have to worry about everybody else first to be a good captain and Alex is doing that," Trotz said. "He just wants to win with that group and he'll do whatever is asked of him to win with that group, and that's a strong message (to his teammates)."
Backstrom has four goals in his last five games and goaltender Braden Holtby has regained his regular season form, while Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has been human in the last two games.
Pittsburgh got a scare in the first period Monday when Sidney Crosby, in his second game back from a concussion, went head first into the end boards in the first period. He later returned.
"I don't know if I tripped on a stick or someone else, I just got tripped up there going pretty fast, went into the boards pretty awkwardly," Crosby said. "Felt fine, just kind of knocked the wind out of me."
Crosby explained that he was examined by a doctor, but it was determined he did not need to go through the concussion protocol.
Momentum might not be on Pittsburgh's side in Game 7, but history is. The Capitals have a 4-10 record in Game 7s, including 0-3 against the Penguins. In 2009, Pittsburgh lost Game 6 at home before coming to Washington and winning Game 7 by a 6-2 score. In addition, Pittsburgh is 5-0 alltime in road Game 7s.
In the Crosby-Ovechkin era, the Penguins have won both series between the teams and have gone on to win the Stanley Cup.
Washington can counter with "Mr. Game 7" Justin Williams, who will play his first one with Washington. In his career, he is 7-0 in Game 7s, with seven goals and seven assists.
The Capitals have rallied from 3-1 series deficits twice before and won Game 7.
"These are the games that you live to play in," Sullivan said. "It's exciting hockey. It's two really good teams. All things are equal here. Both teams gotta win a hockey game."
Updated May 9, 2017