I’ve never been so happy to be wrong. After a horrid Game 6 for the Pittsburgh Penguins, they did everything necessary to change the tide and knock the Washington Capitals out of the playoffs, again. The game lived up to the series hype and was easily the best 60 minutes of hockey the Penguins put together.
Experience Beats Momentum
It wasn’t a secret heading into Game 7 that the Caps had every ounce of momentum. They scored three late goals to win Game 5, ran the Pens out of their own building in Game 6, and everything looked to be in Washington’s favor. Most Pittsburgh writers felt the Pens had reached the end and it was finally supposed to be the Caps turn… until it wasn’t.
Here’s the thing about momentum — it’s very hard to sustain and it isn’t tangible. There really is no measurement for momentum, it’s just something people talk about and players feel. When you watch Games 1 through 5, they looked very similar aside from the moments when the Penguins broke away and cashed in on a counter attack.
The Capitals controlled play throughout the series, the Pens were forced to play strong defense and Marc-Andre Fleury played his best series in eight years. But to summarize Keith Jones during the first-period intermission of Game Seven — momentum, chances and offensive zone time mean nothing if you can’t score. And if you can’t score, you’re likely to lose your momentum.
That’s when experience took over for the Penguins. This group has been there. They battled back from 3-2 in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals and the majority of the skaters for Pittsburgh have their names on the Stanley Cup. Coaches will rely on that experience every time to cause a momentum shift and even after an egregious effort in Game 6, Mike Sullivan had his players ready to go.
No Neutrality in Game Seven
The Pens made several adjustments, including changing their lines up and letting the defense play deep into the offensive zone. The one change that was glaring after the first five minutes was the Penguins movement through the neutral zone. They passed the puck with purpose and their back checking was outstanding. They controlled action in-between the blue lines for the majority of play and it paid off.
Pittsburgh seemed to go away from chipping the puck down ice which is what plagued their offense during much of the series, especially in Game 6. Pucks that were previously several inches away from the target were traveling tape-to-tape during Game 7 and the movement up ice helped the Penguins sustain pressure in the offensive zone and alleviate the pressure on their defense and the netminder.
And then the Capitals bubble burst.
A New Mr. Game 7?
Justin Williams, who lost his first ever Game 7, isn’t the only player on the ice who raises their game in elimination games. Although early in his career, Bryan Rust has made a name for himself as a Penguin by scoring goals when it matters most, including two last year versus Tampa Bay in Game 7 and the game winner tonight in Washington.
Rust scored a very nice goal, but I’m not sure it was the goal that broke the Caps spirit. Just moments after, Washington had a chance to put its lethal power play on the ice with a chance to tie the game. And for the first time in several games, the power play didn’t create very many chances, and in fact, the Caps best chance on special teams came shorthanded after a John Carlson slash.
It was Rust who gave the Penguins a lead and Rust who allowed the Pens to settle into a game where they were ahead, something they hadn’t experienced since early Saturday night. But Patric Hornqvist’s goal just four minutes into the third period was the goal that burst the bubble. The belief was gone, the Verizon Center was quiet (relatively), and scoring chances disappeared. The Washington Capitals had 63% of the scoring chances during the series, yet managed ZERO in the third period of Game Seven.
Second Round Woes Continue
Yet again, the hockey world is left without a superstar-heavy, offensively talented team in the Eastern Conference Finals. The playoff system is flawed — never in a million years should the best two teams in the NHL be playing in a conference semi-final game, but that argument is for the off-season. What can’t be overstated is how awful and unfortunate it is that Caps fans are left with another offseason of “what-ifs” and “almosts.”
It goes much further than another Game 7 loss. It begins with the missed opportunities, at home, in the first two games of this series, Game 1 especially. The Pens, the experienced group that they are, weathered the storm and stole a game. The Capitals were the better team in nearly every facet, but they lost…and the pressure will only grow.
Ovechkin has been in the NHL over a decade and never has played in a Conference Finals. The Caps have never won a game in the Stanley Cup Finals. Kevin Shattenkirk, who was ‘the missing piece‘, is scheduled to be a free agent and it’s unlikely that the Caps can keep him.
“You don’t know if you’ll ever get this opportunity again. Obviously we need some more growth.” -Barry Trotz after Game 7 Loss
Capitals fans and writers are tired of losing and they realize that their current group, likely their best chance at a Cup run now, is going to be dismantled. As a Penguins fan, you relish the fact that your team continues to be more than a thorn in the side of the Caps but a landmine. For Caps fans, you’re left wondering what’s next.
Fun Facts After Game 7
- Matt Cullen is now 6-0 in Game 7’s
- Bryan Rust has more Game 7 goals than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, combined.
- Jake Guentzel broke the franchise record for most points by a rookie in the playoffs with his 14th point. He’ll be chasing the NHL record of 21 points.
- Penguins have never lost a road Game 7. They are now 6-0.
The Penguins now set their sights on some rest and then another chance at winning the Eastern Conference. Because they took the Caps out, they become the owners of the home-ice advantage and will open the series against Ottawa on Saturday night. The things to start thinking about — banged up Penguins without Kris Letang versus a hot, talented Senator team that has nothing to lose and a defenseman named Erik Karlsson. The Pens will have their hands full.
As for now, enjoy the PengWIN and another year of knocking the Caps out of the playoffs. Pittsburgh is halfway there, again.
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