Every article you read regarding the Penguins and their Game 7 fate showcase the Pens in a negative light, and for good reason. Just two days ago, most of the articles, including mine, gave Pens fans every reason why they should remain calm and enjoy a Game 6 victory… and then Game 6 happened.
Without question, this was the worst Penguins effort we’ve seen in 2016-17. They looked tired, disinterested, they were flat-footed, they turned the puck over… all of the things that won them the Stanley Cup (and a Game 6 versus the Capitals a year ago) they suddenly quit doing. They very obviously did not have the laser focus that playoff hockey requires and the Capitals made them pay.
Three Shots on Goal
On a night when the Penguins needed to come out and control play in the offensive zone, they failed to register a shot in the first half of the period, finished the period with only three shots on net total and of those three, two were pucks launched from the blue line that happened to be on net.
It goes without saying, but the Penguins (or any hockey team for that matter) cannot win without shooting the puck. How do we explain the first four games when the Penguins were drastically outshot and still won games? The difference was that the Capitals hadn’t played their best and the Pens were getting the bounces. It’s safe to say those bounces favoured the Caps in Game 6 and ended up behind Marc-Andre Fleury. Now the better team has taken control of the series.
Here We Go Again
Penguins fans, now you can start to play this card. Not once, but twice between the 2009 and 2016 Stanley Cups, the Penguins blew 3-1 series leads and lost (at home) in Game 7. It feels all too familiar; finding ways to win early and then like a flipped switch, nothing works and the Penguins can’t buy a goal or event a shot on goal.
If you’re looking for some hope, there’s not much. But, the pressure still weighs heavily on the shoulders of Alex Ovechkin and company. Ovechkin is 31 years old and will be playing in his 97th career playoff game on Wednesday night yet he’s never played in the Eastern Conference Finals. He’s won several Presidents’ Trophies but he’s still looking for a shot at the Cup. Whereas Sidney Crosby and his Penguins are still the reigning champs and the only people who think they can win this series are the ones putting on pads tomorrow.
The X-Factor: Resiliency
The series and game will come down to resiliency; which team will put their past behind them and focus on one game.
The Penguins are beat up, they’re missing their best defenseman, whose absence can no longer be covered up, and they haven’t played their game against the Capitals all series.
The Capitals are battling history and bad omens. They have been ousted from the playoffs in eight of the nine times they’ve faced the Penguins. In the Ovechkin era, the Caps have yet to play for the Prince of Wales Trophy, especially with Crosby dominating the Battle of Greats between him and Ovechkin.
Grab a pen and paper, write down the result for every past meeting between the Penguins and Capitals — all the postseason outcomes, Game 7s, overall records — all of it. Then, crumble it up and throw it away. It means nothing. – MIKE NECCIAI, The Hockey Writers
For a Game 7 of this magnitude, there’s no telling what product each team will put on the ice. The Penguins could turn it on, the HBK line could find their stride, Malkin could be great instead of taking stupid penalties, and Crosby could be MVP and steal another chance from Ovechkin.
Or… the Caps could lean on leadership from Kevin Shattenkirk and Justin Williams, AKA Mr. Game 7, and thrive off the energy the Verizon Center is sure to bring. When the fans “UNLEASH THE FURY,” the Caps should pick up where they left off in Pittsburgh and ride their momentum into the Eastern Conference Finals. At this point, anything could happen.
"They think they can win Game 7. I say, ‘No.’ " … Evgeni Malkin with some strong words after an ugly Game 6 loss: https://t.co/QgaCHkDipm
— Jason Mackey (@JMackeyPG) May 9, 2017
The Bad News
I don’t doubt that the Penguins will be ready and do everything they can to win, but I doubt their ability to win eight more game after that. The Penguins are beat up, they’re tired (they have played more games in the last 365 days than any other team still playing in the playoffs) and as cliché as it is, it’s awfully hard to repeat as Stanley Cup Champs.
In the End, I’m Still Taking the Capitals
This Washington team can win and after the last four periods of hockey, I’d be crazy to think Game 7 will be different. I said Caps in 7 before the series started which hurts me to my core, but at this point, it seems warranted.
It’s hard to win when your fans give up on you. I noticed the empty seats last night at the eight minute mark. A week ago, seats began to empty with several minutes remaining, before the Pens came back to force OT. As a player who is playing through injury and giving (presumably) everything he has on the ice to win a game for his team and city, how must it feel to see fans leaving in what could be the last home game of the season, or for a few, the last game in a Penguin uniform?
The chips are stacked against the Penguins and although I hope I’m wrong, I see the Capitals making their run this year, a Championship run that that began the day Alexander Ovechkin was drafted.
Smith works full time with Rise Against Hunger, a non-profit set on ending world hunger by 2030. He’s a hockey enthusiast living in Pittsburgh, PA and formerly covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for THW.
Follow him on twitter @BSmithWV