Almost lost in all the excitement and controversy surrounding the pair of Game 7s Tuesday is that the first round isn’t over. Despite the fact that last night’s San Jose Sharks-Vegas Golden Knights contest is going to be a near-impossible act to follow – not to mention the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Groundhog’s Day-esque season-ending loss to the Boston Bruins – we’re going back to the Game 7 well once again Wednesday night.
In what will be the last hurrah of the first round of the post-season, the final page in arguably the most unbelievable chapter in playoff history, the Washington Capitals will look to keep the dream of back-to-back titles alive when they square off against the scrappy Carolina Hurricanes, who enter Game 7 having already given the defending Stanley Cup champions everything they can handle.
So, who moves on? Do the Capitals win another crucial Game 7? Do the Hurricanes advance to the second round of the post-season for the first time in a decade? Here are five storylines to watch and potential keys to the game:
Goaltending can make or break a series, and it can most certainly be the deciding factor in a winner-take-all affair. And here’s the scoop when it comes to Capitals starter Braden Holtby: he has been excellent every time he’s been faced with a Game 7 scenario. In fact, his 3-4 record belies his actual performance in Game 7s, and that he’s below .500 in such games is hardly on Holtby. Across the seven times he’s been faced with a Game 7, he’s posted a .934 save percentage, 1.81 goals-against average and just last season he posted an all-important series-deciding shutout that sent Washington through to the final. Only once has Holtby allowed more than two goals against in a Game 7, and that was when the New York Rangers stung him for five back in the opening round of the 2013 post-season.
That makes Holtby an incredibly pivotal figure in Game 7. The Capitals are likely to lean hard on their netminder, which they have for much of the series given they’ve been outshot by a nearly 40-shot margin through the first six games. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, are going to have their best chance at winning if they can break Holtby early. That’s going to require traffic in front, sustained pressure and possibly an early goal.
A lesson that battle-hardened and playoff-tested teams learn early, often times before they make a deep run into the post-season, is that you need your best players to be your best players when it matters most. As far as the Hurricanes are concerned, that means all eyes will be on Sebastian Aho come Wednesday night.
Aho showed how special he can be during the regular season with a point-per-game, 30-goal, 83-point performance, but he’s yet to really take over an outing through six games of the Hurricanes' first-round tilt against the Capitals. Has he had some impact? Of course. His goal and four points put him fifth in team scoring. But Carolina needs Aho to bring his best in the biggest moment of his young career. A consistent 25-goal scorer throughout his three seasons in the NHL, there’s some scoring punch that has yet to be delivered. There’s no better time for Aho to unlock it than Wednesday night.
Alex Ovechkin has never been accused of hiding his emotions, and while he’s usually expressing himself by exuberantly celebrating his own lamp-lighting blasts or one of his teammates’ tallies, he made the highlight reel following Game 6 for the wrong reasons. Ovechkin took a late slashing minor and mockingly clapped at officials. The result? An early shower to cap a disappointing loss.
But if there’s any player in the league who is going to come back fiery after being booted from a contest, it’s Ovechkin. The Capitals captain is going to be looking to exact revenge, and you can rest assured that he’s hungering to do so by stuffing the scoresheet. He’s proven he can perform in Game 7s, too. He’s played in 11 and has four goals and seven points in those contests, including one game-winning marker.
If you’re the Hurricanes, the strategy might be to get on Ovechkin early. If he’s given no room to breathe, could his frustration show again? If it does, Carolina might be able to take advantage of a welcome penalty trade off or a distracted superstar scorer.
Not to bring up the whole Sharks-Golden Knights thing again, but we saw Tuesday how one call can change the course of an entire outing. And while it’s exceedingly unlikely that something similar will happen – we’re talking a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a one-percent chance that we see another debatable major penalty result in a four-goal power play – every single penalty taken Wednesday night will matter. That’s especially true for the Hurricanes, who simply haven’t been able to quiet the Capitals on the penalty kill.
Through the six games of this series, the Hurricanes have been beaten repeatedly on the penalty kill, and following the Maple Leafs’ defeat at the hands of the Bruins on Tuesday, Carolina’s 71.4 penalty kill percentage is the worst of any team left standing. Six times in the series Washington has struck with the man advantage, and that’s not including Nic Dowd’s Game 6 penalty shot tally.
Staying disciplined hasn’t been the Hurricanes’ strong suit, unfortunately. Their 271 minor penalties were 11th-most in the NHL during the regular season. The good news, though? There's a tendency for referees to put their whistles away in the post-season and there have been times where whistles get downright swallowed in Game 7s. Thus, if it’s not egregious, it might not get called. That said, any infraction will see Carolina playing with fire against a red-hot Washington power play.
MR. GAME 7 vs. MR. GAME 7
The subject of Hurricanes captain Justin Williams’ Game 7 success is unavoidable when it comes Wednesday’s contest. No player in NHL history has come up as big as Williams when his team’s season is on the line in a winner-take-all game. The numbers tell the story: eight times Williams has played in a Game 7 and he’s registered seven goals and seven assists in those outings. His 14 points are a league record for Game 7 output, one more than the 13 points Doug Gilmour scored and two more than Wayne Gretzky’s 12 points, a mark ‘The Great One’ shares with Trevor Linden and Mark Messier.
However, Williams isn’t the only ‘Mr. Game 7’ in the lineup. Though his offensive output in the games isn’t nearly as impressive as that of Williams, Washington’s Carl Hagelin has eight wins in such games, one more than Williams’ seven. As far as production goes, though, Hagelin has just two points in the nine Game 7s in which he’s appeared.
Want more in-depth features, analysis and an All-Access pass to the latest content? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.