Whether you are a new or old Washington Capitals fan, you have learned one thing: winning playoff series is rarely an easy thing for the Caps to accomplish. This season is no exception as Washington will take on Montreal in game seven on Wednesday night at 7pm at the Verizon Center after they were seemingly in control of the series, up 3-1, after four games. The Caps all time record in game sevens, coming into this tilt, stands at 2-6. It was 1-5 going into last year’s playoffs before they defeated the Rangers in the first round and then lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. I have attended all of the past game sevens and it is hard to say which one was the worst. Anyways, if you want to read about those first six game sevens in team history you can click here for my blog about them from last spring.
The good news is that history does not matter at all. Each hockey game is an independent event and any perceived momentum coming into the game seven can, and often does, go right out the window once the puck drops. The Alexander Ovechkin led Caps team will play their fourth straight game seven in four playoffs series and in each of the past three they definitely had momentum on their side going into the final tilt. Washington’s record in those three game sevens is 1-2. This year there is no doubt that Montreal has the momentum, primarily because of the play of goalie Jaroslav Halak (allowed two goals in last two games). But Wednesday’s game is a new chapter and with that here are my thoughts and keys to the game for the Caps, in no particular order:
- Start Fast: The Caps need to have a good first period or at least be tied after the first stanza. Montreal has an 8-3 edge on the scoreboard in period one through the first six contests and a big part of that has been the lackluster effort from Washington to open these games. Three times in this series (games two, five, and six) the Habs have tallied twice in the first 10 minutes, that must cease on Wednesday for Washington to be victorious. The Canadiens, once ahead, fall back into their counter-attacking trap which has, for the most part, worked because of the way their goalie is playing. In addition, the team that has scored the first goal has won five of the six contests (game two was the lone exception).
- Crowd Support: The Verizon Center crowd needs to help their team out. If you watched game six, and according to Comcast a lot of people did because it set ratings records for Caps hockey viewing, you heard the raucous Montreal crowd and as Halak made save after save in the early going it seemed to get even louder and fuel their hockey team. The 18,000 plus fans who will “Rock the Red” on Wednesday night in DC need to get behind their club and stay supportive and loud.
- Limit Penalties: Washington needs to stay out of the box. The Caps have taken some bad penalties this series and Montreal has a power play goal in all but one contest (game five was the exception). Mike Cammalleri (five goals in the playoffs) has had a super year against Washington, especially on the power play when he gets time and space to get his shot off. If the Caps can take three or fewer minors on Wednesday that bodes well for them.
- Crank up the Power Play: The Caps will get power play opportunities in this one, they have averaged five a game so far in the series but they are a putrid 1 for 30. Personally, I hope Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau makes some changes to the first unit, and my preference is to bump Alexander Semin from that crew. I would prefer that Ovechkin be moved down low to create traffic and havoc in front of Halak. I would put either John Carlson or Joe Corvo on the points on the top unit with Mike Green and have them focus on getting shots through or dumping the puck down low where the Caps can cycle the two Habs defenders and wear them out. The power play needs to rid itself of the standing around and overpassing we’ve seen in the first six games.
- Quality Goaltending: Whether Boudreau goes with Semyon Varlamov or Jose Theodore as his starter does not matter. Either guy is capable of getting the job done and whichever one gets the call must find a way to cover any defensive mistakes. Halak is doing that for his squad and now it is the Caps turn to have the superior goalie. After all, Halak is due for a subpar performance.
- Better Defense: With Tom Poti out for game seven, plus the second round if there is one due to a fractured orbital bone, defenseman Karl Alzner was recalled from Hershey for game seven. I like this move because #27 matches up better than Tyler Sloan or John Erskine does with the small and fast Montreal forwards. The Caps have done a poor job of thwarting the Montreal attack from their defensive blue line to the top of the circles in their own end. Simply put, the d-men have been backing up way too much and giving the Habs forwards time and space to create shooting opportunities, many of which have been with traffic in front of Washington’s goalies. I’d like to see the Caps blue liners challenge the smaller forwards and make them give up the puck sooner. Cammalleri, Tomas Plekenac, Scott Gomez, and company have had too much leeway to operate in Washington’s zone. Shaone Morrisonn, who returned from injury on Monday, was at least a step slow in game six so he needs to rebound with a big performance, if he is healthy. If he is banged up then Sloan needs to play.
- Crash the Net: If you take a look at the shot chart from game six, a lot of the 54 shots taken by Washington were from the blue line and the perimeter. The Caps need to fight harder to go to the slot and the front of the cage for chances and rebounds. Eric Fehr has two goals in this series that way, as does Ovechkin. Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Boyd Gordon, and hopefully an insertion of Scott Walker into the lineup all need to pay the price and find a way to score some ugly goals on Halak. So far in this matchup, if Halak sees the shot he has pretty much stopped it.
- Dump Puck and Cycle: When the Caps have thrown the puck down low they have been able to generate chances from cycling the Montreal defense. For the most part, the Caps are bigger than Montreal (Hal Gill is the exception) and they should use their size to generate offense from below the goal line. Rookie d-man PK Subban played well for the Habs at home on Monday but at the Verizon Center the Caps need to hit him early and often to rattle him into making turnovers. Same thing goes for Roman Hamrlik and the other Canadiens d-men. Washington cannot afford to turn the puck over at the blue line, they need to dump it deep, hit the Habs, and get their powerful cycle game going.
In summary, the Caps need to bring emotion, discipline, and play a simple game on Wednesday night if they want to advance to play Philadelphia in the second round. Clearly the pressure is on, and if they don’t perform well and lose, it will be one long off-season with a lot of fingers pointed at several different people. But the Caps must avoid thinking about those types of things and focus on each individual shift in game seven. If they stay in the moment, listen to their coach, and give maximum effort, they will win and all of that stuff that the media likes to talk about goes away. Bottom line, keeping it simple in game seven leads to a higher probability of victory.