It’s official: the Washington Capitals are now in win-or-go-home territory. Following their capitulatory defeat to the Florida Panthers in Game 5, head coach Peter Laviolette’s squad must win at Capital One Arena on Friday to extend their first-round series to seven games.
Although few expected the Capitals to take Florida this far, the nature of Washington’s last two defeats has resurrected the dark cloud that hovered over D.C. throughout the second half of the regular season. There’s a sense of what-if about the 2021-22 Capitals, especially in the goaltending department – the area general manager Brian MacLellan attempted but failed to strengthen at the 2022 NHL Trade Deadline.
However, the Caps can overcome that what-if feeling by winning at home on Friday. While it’s easier said than done to defeat the reigning Presidents’ Trophy champions in an elimination game, the Capitals could pull it off if three players step up and find their stride in Game 6.
Alex Ovechkin: Goal-Scoring Threat
After a blistering start to the regular season, Alex Ovechkin’s goal-scoring fell off a little. Even so, the Capitals’ captain went on to earn the ninth 50-goal season of his career, making him the oldest player in NHL history to hit the mark.
He hasn’t, however, been that impactful in the playoffs, scoring just once in five appearances versus the Panthers. Although the Russian also has six assists, his ability to put the puck in the net is integral to the Capitals’ hopes of advancing beyond round one for the first time since hoisting the Stanley Cup in 2018.
Ovechkin has a 5.6 percent shooting percentage so far in this series, a career-low in playoff and regular-season play. Also of note, his lone strike was a speculative effort on the power play.
Considering only a fortnight has passed since Ovechkin suffered an upper-body injury by crashing into the end boards against the Toronto Maple Leafs, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he’s not at full speed. But now isn’t the time for the 36-year-old to take his foot off the gas: he must deliver in Game 6 if the Capitals stand a chance of knocking Florida off their game.
Tom Wilson: Injury List
Through no fault of his own, Tom Wilson has only played a peripheral role in the series so far. He was injured during the opening period of Game 1 and has been sidelined with a lower-body injury ever since. However, he travelled with the team to Miami for Game 5 and is said to be nearing a return.
“It’s great to have him around. It’s great to see him working,” Laviolette said of Wilson’s influence before Game 5. “He’s still day-to-day.”
The 28-year-old registered 52 points (24 goals, 28 assists) in 78 appearances during the regular season, earning an NHL All-Star call-up in the process. He also found twine in the opening game of the playoffs, beating Sergei Bobrovsky with a rebound strike.
While plenty of question marks surround Wilson’s fitness, his return to the lineup would provide Washington with a significant boost heading into Game 6. There’s no doubt the Canadian forward will suit up as soon as he’s healthy enough to do so, but will he be ready in time for puck drop on Friday?
Ilya Samsonov (and Vitek Vanecek): Goalie Controversy
Goaltending. It’s the elephant in the room for the Capitals. As expected, Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have squabbled over control of the crease all series long, with Laviolette still unable to determine which of them should be his starter.
Vanecek started the playoffs on the front foot, backstopping Washington to a win in Game 1 with an impressive performance. However, his form fell off a cliff in the rematch; he allowed five goals on 19 shots and was mercy-pulled at the end of the second period.
Samsonov has occupied the Capitals’ blue paint since then and stopped 29 of the 30 shots in Game 3. Even so, his save percentage has also dipped lately, leaving Laviolette with a huge decision to make ahead of tomorrow’s elimination game: stick with Samsonov or twist to Vanecek?
|Netminder||Game||Result||Shots Against||Saves||Save Percentage||Time on Ice|
|Vanecek||Game 1||4-2 (W)||32||30||.938||60:00|
|Vanecek||Game 2 (S)||5-1 (L)||19||14||.737||39:49|
|Samsonov||Game 2 (R)||5-1 (L)||17||17||1.00||20:00|
|Samsonov||Game 3||6-1 (W)||30||29||.967||59:40|
|Samsonov||Game 4||4-3 (OTL)||32||29||.906||64:57|
|Samsonov||Game 5||5-3 (L)||38||33||.868||56:43|
All indicators point to Laviolette sticking by Samsonov for what could be the final game of Washington’s season. Although the Russian’s stop rate has declined since he re-entered the crease, he hasn’t been helped by his blueliners – which was particularly evident in Game 5.
Whoever starts Game 6, it’s absolutely essential that they shut the door on Florida in the opening minutes. Washington can’t afford for the contest to slip away from them, which means their netminder(s) will have an all-important role to play. After a season-long goalie controversy, will Samsonov step up when it really counts?
Capitals vs. Panthers: Game 6 Talking Points
Aside from having key players provide statement performances, there are plenty of things the Capitals must do as a team to overcome the Panthers tomorrow night. Firstly, staying out of the penalty box is essential for Washington: the Panthers are too strong in the offensive zone to hand them clear-cut scoring chances. Being effective on the power play will also define the Caps’ fortunes. They’ve done a solid job of making an impact on the man advantage, and that must continue.
Also of note, the Capitals can’t afford to play with reckless abandon in the offensive zone. They were burned after making silly plays in the final third a couple of times in Game 5, most notably on Carter Verhaeghe’s second goal of the night. Finally, Laviolette’s side must stick to their game plan. If they can keep the contest tight until the final minutes, they will create opportunities to unsettle a nervous Panthers squad. While it’d be preferable for the Capitals to claim an early lead, doing so isn’t essential to them winning out in a win-or-go-home contest.
Luke is an award-winning sports journalist from London, England. In addition to his work on the Washington Capitals beat for THW, he covers the Elite Ice Hockey League for British Ice Hockey and world soccer for numerous publications, including on Substack. To stay up to date with his content, follow @LukeJames_32 on Twitter.