Well, this should be fun.
The New York Rangers, fitted for toe tags after losing Game 4 in Washington, fought back from another 3-1 series deficit to force tonight’s decisive Game 7 at Madison Square Garden.
It’s a scenario that plays heavily in their favor. The Rangers are 9-0 in elimination games at MSG since 2008, and have five wins to show for their past five Game 7s.
Meanwhile, the Capitals have made an art of losing when it matters most. Washington has dropped 11 of its past 14 series-clinching games. If the Caps are going to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998 (the year of their lone appearance in the Stanley Cup finals) they need to put their checkered history behind them and play with the fearlessness that colored their wins in Games 1, 3 and 4.
Here are seven things to watch for in tonight's winner-take-all Game 7.
1. THE GUARANTEE
Alex Ovechkin knows this is his moment. All the work he’s done this season to improve his all-around game, to strengthen his commitment to the team concept—it’ll all be overlooked if the Caps blow yet another 3-1 series lead.
So he made a vow in the wake of his team’s Game 6 loss: “We’re going to come back and win the series.”
Beautiful. That right there is exactly what a team wants from its captain. And by putting it out there so boldly, Ovechkin takes the pressure away from his teammates and puts it squarely on his own broad shoulders.
Now he just has to deliver. After boasting that he’d be in Henrik Lundqvist’s grill “all series, baby” back in Game 1, he’s been anywhere but. Ovechkin has been shut out in each of the past four games, and while he’s found ways to contribute away from the puck he knows it’s not an either/or situation. For the Caps to move own, he has to deliver the goals to go along with the grit. But he also has to be careful not to try to do too much himself. And he has to persevere if Washington falls behind. If there’s one stain on his remarkable legacy it’s that he has disappeared in so many must-win games, particularly in international play.
This is his moment now. He’s claimed it. Let’s see what he does with it.
2. CHRIS KREIDER IS THE DEVIL
At least, that’s the way he has to appear to the Caps. The bruising forward almost took them on single-handedly in Game 6, scoring in both the first and last minute of the opening frame to crush Washington’s spirit and then literally crushing them with a series of bone-jarring hits. Not all of them were textbook, either—that shot he gave Andrei Burakovsky bordered on cheap—but at this time of year that’s exactly what you want from someone on your team. That ability to inspire a little fear, and maybe leave a few bodies in your wake, can provide the edge that propels the Rangers into the next round. The fact that the guy laying those hits also happens to have the will to go to the net and the soft hands to make something happen once he gets there makes him the player to watch in blue.
3. WHAT ABOUT NICK?
While Ovechkin is suffering all the slings and arrows, his running buddy has pretty much been given a pass for his own continuing struggles. Nicklas Backstrom has contributed just one point in the series, an assist all the way back in Game 1 when he created the turnover that led to Joel Ward’s last-second game-winner. In fact, that’s his only point in his past nine contests. And in his last four games, he has just three shots on net, with goose eggs in Games 3 and 4 in Washington. Not exactly a step-up performance.
And it’s not just the Capitals offense that’s gone dry. Backstrom’s always been a solid defender, but even that element of his game has fallen off. That was evident again in Game 6 when he allowed Rick Nash to slip away from him just moments before the Rangers winger scored to make it 3–1 New York early in the third period.
Is Backstrom hurt? Or do the Rangers simply have him tied up in knots? Either way, his performance will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this one.
4. LOCK-IT-DOWN LUNDQVIST
It’s no wonder the Rangers are quietly confident heading into this contest. They’ve already beaten the Caps in Game 7 twice in the past four seasons (2012, 2013). And they have the ultimate weapon between the pipes. Lundqvist has taken his play to another level in his past five Game 7 appearances, going 5-0 with a 0.80 goals-against average and a .973 save percentage. Of course, past history is no indication of future performance as they say in mutual fund ads, but better to go in with someone who’s shown that he can rise to the occasion.
5. WASHINGTON’S SPUTTERING POWER PLAY
Funny how these things work. All season long, the Caps feasted on the power play. In fact, no team connected more frequently with the extra man. They scored off the rush. They scored when they got set up in the zone. It wasn’t a matter of “if” but “how often.”
Things have changed though in the playoffs. Washington has connected a total of only three times in 25 opportunities, and not at all since Ovechkin’s Game 1 laser.
In fact, the Capitals likely wouldn’t be in this spot if they were operating even close to their regular-season efficiency. Washington was given four chances with the extra man in Game 6 on Sunday, including a crucial opportunity on James Sheppard’s delay of game call with just over two minutes remaining, and were stymied each time.
The key to their failure is familiarity. There are no secrets. Both the Islanders and Rangers had seen plenty of the Caps during the regular season and knew what Washington wanted to do ... and how to defend against it. Mostly, that’s meant taking away the passing lanes that lead to Ovechkin’s one timers.
Meanwhile, Washington has done nothing to change its approach to combat its predictability. Will that change tonight? Maybe changing up the unit by dropping Marcus Johansson and adding Evgeny Kuznetsov, a player who is willing to both pass and shoot. Similarly, Backstrom has to be looking for shot opportunities. Because he’s almost no threat to shoot, it makes it easier for the Rangers to cheat away from him and focus on the pass. If he can make that change, the Caps might finally break through.
6. THE OTHER CAPTAIN
Ryan McDonagh’s had his highs and lows this series. He scored the OT winner to clinch Game 5 and he left Game 6 after being crushed by Ovechkin. He ended up returning late in the contest, blocking a Backstrom shot in the closing moments before clearing the puck to seal the victory, but there’s no telling what lingering effects he was dealing with. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault says his captain “will be OK” for tonight”s game, but McDonagh bears watching. He will be targeted again, as he has been throughout the series. His ability to fight through the contact and make good puck decisions, particularly in his own end, will be key to New York’s chances to advance.
7. WASHINGTON'S NEW LOOK SECOND LINE
The newly reconfigured unit of Ward alongside Jason Chimera and Kuznetsov clicked immediately in Game 6, leveraging their combination of skill and brute force to produce all three of Washington’s goals. Kuznetsov, who is showing signs of becoming the second-line center they dreamed he would be, has had the magic mitts throughout the series. No Capital has looked more comfortable or competent with the biscuit on his stick. And that’s pretty much where it was throughout the game. According to waronice.com, the trio absolutely dominated possession at five-on-five, outchancing the Rangers by an obscene margin.
If the top line stumbles, this game could be up to them.
• GALLERY: The NHL's greatest Game 7s
The numbers game
• The Rangers have won five straight Game 7s since losing one to the Capitals in the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Their streak is one shy of the NHL record set by the Red Wings from 1949 through ’64 and tied by the Bruins from 1983 through ’94. At 6-0, New York has never lost a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts are the only team in NHL history to play at least four Game 7s at home and win all of them. They've also won their last nine elimination games at MSG, dating back to ’08, a streak that is also a league record.
• Six of the Rangers’ 11 playoff series since ’09 have gone to Game 7. The Capitals have been taken to the limit in nine of their 11 playoff series since ’08—including each of their past five. Their nine Game 7s in that span are tied with the Bruins for most in the NHL.
• Home teams are 93-65 all-time and 2-0 this year in postseason play. The team that scores first is 117-41, including 2-0 this year. A total of 39 Game 7s have gone to overtime (39-of-158, 24.7%). Road teams are 20-19 in those games.
• Analysis of the brain of the late Steve Montador revealed signs of CTE. Montador’s family has revealed plans to sue the NHL in the wake of the findings. BTW, today is the fourth anniversary of Derek Boogaard’s death, yet another tragic case of brain trauma caused by concussions.
• The Blackhawks are facing some serious roster decisions this off-season, but GM Stan Bowman has them well prepared for the hard cuts to come.
• Minnesota Wild goatender Josh Harding is expected to announce his retirement soon. What he accomplished in this league while battling MS will be remembered as one of the most remarkable hockey journeys ever.
• A drone flew into the arena construction site in Las Vegas and shot this cool video. The place is coming along nicely.