Game 7 tonight: Caps really are in “must-win” territory

April 28, 2009 | Drew Forrester

A year ago in the first-round of the playoffs, the Caps surrendered a power play goal in overtime to Joffrey Lupul and Don Koharski of the Philadelphia Flyers and the visitors in orange won Game 7 to move on in the post-season and sent Washington to the golf course for the summer.

Well, sometime Wednesday afternoon, either the Caps or New York Rangers will be teeing it up at their local country club.

It’s “do or die” tonight at the Verizon Center, as the Caps look to exorcise that demon of a year ago and rebound from another 3-1 series deficit to oust the pesky Rangers.

It won’t be easy. 

Friday in Washington, the Caps won 4-0 to trim the series lead to 3-2.  That was easy.

Sunday in New York, Washington moved out to an early 3-1 lead and cruised from there, winning 5-3 to even ths series at 3-3.  It was almost too easy, particularly for a game in which the Rangers could have “held serve” at home.

Tonight will not be easy.

For starters, New York’s goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has produced two straight stinkers in Games 5 and 6.  I can’t see him playing poorly tonight.  I hope he does.  But I doubt that he will.

Washington will need another multi-faceted effort tonight if they hope to triumph and scoot into round #2.  In this series so far, Alex Ovechkin (3 goals in 6 games) has been somewhat limited by a stifling Rangers neutral zone defense.  Ovechkin hasn’t played poorly…but to say he’s been extremely effective offensively would be a lie.  He hasn’t been.  That said, “The Great 8” – like Lundqvist – is due for a big-game performance and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him break out with a two or three goal effort this evening. 

Other than a stellar effort in the Game 3 win at New York (3 assists), Nicklas Backstrom has been relatively quiet in this series.  Tonight would be a time for Backstrom to get the bit between his teeth and shed this label that he’s picked up: “tends to disappear in big games.”  After failing to score a goal in Games 1-5, Mike Green finally broke through with a Game 6 goal.  Like Ovechkin, though, Green hasn’t been hitting on all offensive cylinders in this series and needs to have a big game at both ends of the ice in order for Washington to win.

Goaltending is apparently no longer an issue for the Caps, as they’ve handed the job to rookie Simeon Varlamov and moved unreliable Jose Theodore to the role of full-time end-of-bench cheerleader.  While Varlamov has been very good in the five games he’s played, it is fair to note he’s never played in a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  

Individual player performances aside, tonight’s game will most likely come down to three things: 1) Who wants it more — 2) Who scores first  —  3) power play/penalty killing

If Washington doesn’t “want it more” tonight, they deserve to lose.  They embarrassed themselves with two home losses to start the series, but have courageously worked their way back to force a Game 7.  It gives them not only a chance to win and move on THIS year, but it also gives them the opportunity to partially-erase the memory of Lupul swatting that puck past Cristobel Huet last April 22 to give Philly the 4-3 win in Game 7.  A loss tonight would pile up two years of bad Game 7 memories in D.C. — and those failings suddenly become “traits of the team”…as in, “they can’t win the big game at home.”

Staying out of the penalty box will be critical for the Caps tonight.  At even-strength, there’s no way the Rangers match-up with Washington.  New York’s offense has been pedestrian throughout the season and only deflections and power play goals have been semi-rescued them and pushed them into tonight’s elimination game.  If the Caps play smart and limit their penalties on Tuesday night, they’ll win.  On the flip side, if they get stupid – like they did in the last 10 minutes at The Garden on Sunday – and rack up 7 or 8 penalties in Game 7, they’ll lose. 

Tonight is all about one thing:  Playing smart hockey.  That’s why not having the now-suspended Donald Brashear in the lineup might actually HELP the Caps in Game 7.  There’s one less guy on the ice who could do something dumb at any given moment.

When they were down 3-1, I said the Caps would come back to win the series based mainly on the fact that the Rangers have little reliable offensive output.  I feel good now…after all, if you’re going to have Game 7, you want it at home, right?  That said, the Rangers are due to have a good game – as is Lundqvist – which means Washington will have to play well tonight to win. 

It will NOT be easy this evening at Verizon Center.

New York wants to win too, remember.

Let’s just hope the Caps want to win more.