The last time the Washington Capitals were in Game 7 of a Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Rangers, the Caps lost 5-0 in an abysmal display at the Verizon Center in 2013.
A few people had extremely bad days on that dreadful afternoon, including goalie Braden Holtby, a few forwards (Eric Fehr and Mike Ribeiro had a minus-4 rating for the game), and most of the defense. That was then and this is now.
New Coach, New Defense, New Capitals
The Capitals players taking the ice Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden have a lot more going for them than the team that took the ice two years ago – and they also have a better coach. No disrespect to Adam Oates (who was at the helm for the 2012-13 season), but the Capitals legend had zero NHL coaching experience when he took over the team. Current boss Barry Trotz has been around the postseason block a few times and he has a synergy with his players like no prior coach since Alex Ovechkin’s first season – but is this the one time he gets a team into the Conference Final?
There are many factors at play; the most important is the defense. The acquisition of Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Tim Gleason is one of the best things to happen to the Capitals in a long time. Each of them is a hard-hitting tactician with a keen sense of communication and, Niskanen in particular, can fire in a shot from the blue line just as good as fellow defenseman Mike Green. Throw in John Carlson and Karl Alzner and the result is one of the biggest, meanest and skillful D in the NHL. If all six play to their strengths in Game 7, the Capitals will win.
— ESPN (@espn) May 11, 2015
Confident Statements Galore
On Sunday, after the New York Rangers beat Washington 4-3 in Game 6 to force the final showdown, we heard Ovechkin state unequivocally that the Capitals would leave New York City Wednesday with a victory. He guaranteed the win for his team on the same night that his teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov told reporters that Holtby was better than the Rangers’ ‘King’ Henrik Lundqvist. I’m on the fence as to whether such confident (or foolish) rhetoric will pay off. I know for sure though that the New York faithful will let Ovi and Kuzy hear a negative response to the Washington players’ bold statements.
Ovechkin is not the first player to predict good things for himself or his team in sports history, and his confidence is admirable. His coach told the media that he had no issues with Ovechkin’s predictions and nor should he. The Capitals must bring their A-Game to win Game 7. They must leave their historical Game 7 woes at the door (especially that last Game 7 of theirs against the Rangers) and each player on the ice must play with limited mistakes – and that means no giveaways or takeaways – which have cost Washington dearly of late.
Time for the King to Abdicate
However, let’s face it — the key to beating the Rangers is to figure out Lundqvist. He will stop wrist shots from the point or near the blue line all day, every day, for the next five years. Getting poked-in goals from near his crease is the best approach, and that paid off in Game 6 when all three Capitals’ goals found the net from short distances. In Game 7, the Capitals should abandon their finesse and just (legally) invade Lundqvist’s space as much as possible. Throwing him a few end-over-end ‘knuckle-pucks’ is also a good idea. However, all of that is much easier said than done.
The Capitals have numerous advantages going into Game 7. First, Holtby is enjoying the best season and postseason of his NHL career. When he’s on his game, nothing gets past him. If he performs (and the men in front of him concentrate and don’t leave him hanging), then the Caps win. Second, if Ovechkin can lose his parasitic Rangers markers and has a few good looks on goal, then the Caps win. Lastly, if the Capitals control the puck, create chances, communicate on the ice, and somehow disrupt Lundqvist’s rhythm and psyche, then the Caps win.
So … Go do all that, Capitals! On paper, this is your year; on the ice, if you bring your best game in all departments, there’s no stopping you.