The Washington Capitals, owner of the NHL’s best regular-season record, face elimination for the second time Monday when they face the Penguins in Pittsburgh.
The Capitals stayed alive Saturday by posting a 4-2 win at home in Game 5. Can they do it again on the road? Here is what the Capitals, down 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, need to do to force a Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday:
1. Let Tom Wilson do what he does: Make this the most physical game of the series. It’s not as if the Penguins haven’t been hit before. It’s not about intimidation. This is about setting a tone, and making yourself feel empowered. It’s like in the NFL when offensive linemen prefer to start the game with running plays over passing plays because they are moving forward instead of backpedaling. If Wilson and the Caps come out hitting, they will be energized in a hostile environment. It’s a tricky strategy to employ, however, because if a team is too aggressive then players end up in the penalty box too often. That can happen when Wilson is fully charged. Putting the Penguins on the power play is not in the Caps’ best interest.
2. Play the perfect road game: That means playing conservative on the back end, less risky behavior with the puck, more shot-blocking, fewer times a defenseman jumps into the offensive rush.
Throughout this series, the Capitals have done a reasonable job of limiting the Penguins' shots on goal. But the emphasis in this game has to be on limiting premium scoring chances. The Capitals have to bunker up in front of the net. They have to protect the inside.
Sometimes if you play a calculating defensive game, looking to win 2-1, your opponent presses and you end up getting more scoring opportunities.
3. Look for Ovi to rise up: Although Alex Ovechkin has never been able to lead the Capitals to the Eastern Conference Final, he has historically produced against the Penguins.
He has at least one point in 15 of his 18 postseason games against Pittsburgh. He has 12 goals in those 18 games and is averaging 1.44 points per game. He has two goals and three assists in this series.
But it’s fair to say Washington fans who love Ovechkin have long waited for him to deliver a Mark Messier-like playoff performance that would be talked about for years.
4. Find an unsung hero or two: In Game 4, Andre Burakovsky scored his first goal of the postseason. The Capitals need more of that. They need their bottom six forwards to create offense.
This series isn’t the Sidney Crosby line vs. the Nicklas Backstrom line. One of the keys to the Penguins’ success is their ability to get important contributions from players outside the top six forwards. The Capitals have depth, and they need to show that in Game 6.
5. Be flawless in net: Goalie Braden Holtby owns an .876 save percentage in this series. He has a .932 career playoff save percentage. But there were signs in Game 5, such as his key stop against Crosby, that he might be ready to be the superb goalie he was in the regular season.
What the Capitals need most of all is for Holtby to shut the door on the Penguins, to give up one goal or no goals.
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