Is Game 6 a Must-Win for Penguins?

The term “must-win” has become one of the most popular cliches in sports over the years. The literal meaning of the term can’t be applied to anything except an elimination game, but it’s often used in other situations too.

In the minds of many fans, Game 6 for the Pittsburgh Penguins might as well be one of them. While the game is only technically a “must-win” for the Washington Capitals, if the Penguins plan on repeating as Stanley Cup champions, it’s a game they really have to have.

Avoiding Game 7

Alex Ovechkin, referee Dan O’Rourke and Matt Cullen (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

Pittsburgh’s owned a physiological edge because of the playoff histories between these two clubs, and the struggles the Capitals have had in the Alex Ovechkin era. The Capitals are 3-6 in Game 7s since Ovechkin joined the team in 2004. It’s also been well documented that during that time, Washington hasn’t been past the second round.

For those reasons, the Capitals would love to avoid a Game 7. But after falling behind 3-1 in the series, they would likely relish the opportunity to move on to the conference finals in a do or die situation against their arch-enemy in front of their home crowd. If that occurs, Washington would possess all the momentum heading into the contest having won the last two games.

The Penguins have already stolen two at the Verizon Center – to win three games there to take the series is asking a lot. They need to take care of business on home ice Monday and avoid letting doubt creep into their minds because of another loss.

Much Needed Rest

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Even if Pittsburgh does blow another opportunity to close out the series Monday, and then wins Game 7, it might be a case of winning the battle, but losing the war. Despite the fact that Kris Letang and Matt Murray are the only Penguins currently out of the lineup, it still feels like Pittsburgh’s group is holding on by a thread.

Players who were vital to the Stanley Cup run last season such as wings Patric Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin are far from 100 percent, and it was reflective in their play Saturday. Center Evgeni Malkin may lead the NHL in playoff points, but he hasn’t quite dominated games as he did prior to his injury in March.

On the Pittsburgh blue line, the Capitals forecheck has battered and beaten just about everybody. Trevor Daley didn’t finish Game 5 after taking a questionable hit from Washington’s Tom Wilson. Josh Yohe of speculated Saturday night that Ian Cole got his “bell rung” on a hit, and also reported Brian Dumoulin is playing hurt.

Not to mention Sidney Crosby and Conor Sheary both recently recovering from concussions.

Getting past Washington is obviously important, but that’s not the end game. Pittsburgh needs to be healthy and ready for the rest of the playoffs, specifically the Eastern Conference Final that begin this weekend. Should they win Monday, the Penguins would receive up to four days off. But should it go seven and the Penguins still win, they might have just one day of rest should their next series begin Friday.

That’s not enough time to heal and prepare for the next round. Not to mention, the Penguins could also suffer more injuries in the extra game. To beat the next opponent, it might be necessary for Pittsburgh to win Game 6 and get some much-needed rest.

Just Play No Matter What?

(Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

On the other hand, under Mike Sullivan, the Penguins have proven time and again they are an extremely resilient team. Nothing yet has been able to completely break their resolve. The Washington Capitals could very well turn back into the favorite if they are able to force Game 7, and that’s not a role this team has done well with over the years.

And it’s not like the next round’s opponent is waiting already. The Ottawa Senators could knock out the New York Rangers Tuesday, but should the Rangers win, Game 7 will be Thursday. That would rule out the Eastern Conference Final starting Friday, giving the Penguins a few extra days of rest.

Make no mistake, the Penguins want to officially eliminate the Capitals on Monday, but they do still have a little margin for error. Game 6 is a contest they want, and the Penguins will play as if they “absolutely need” it, but it’s not a “must-win”.

Washington doesn’t win the series if they capture Game 6. Pittsburgh could still take the series in seven.