Game 7, Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series (Series even, 3-3)
April 28 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Verizon Center Time: 7:00 pm TV: CSN HD, TSN, Versus Radio: Caps Radio 106.7 FM, Fox 1370 AM and XM Pregame: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage pre-game show at 3:00 p.m., both on www.washingtoncaps.com
Montreal Canadiens (39-33-10, 88 points)
Washington Capitals (54-15-13, 121 points)
For the fourth time in as many Stanley Cup playoff series, the Washington Capitals will go to a seventh and deciding game to decide the fate of their season. For the fourth time in as many series, the Caps will play that Game 7 on home ice at Verizon Center, this time against the plucky Montreal Canadiens.
The Caps are 1-2 in Game 7s in the previous two springs; they are 2-7 in deciding playoff games during their franchise’s history, a total that includes a Game 5 from back in the day when early playoff series were best-of-five affairs.
“We’ve been through it,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “You wish you didn’t have to do it. We just have to go out and win it, that’s all.”
There is one glaring difference between this year’s Capitals heading into Game 7 as compared to the three previous series. The 2009-10 Caps had two prior chances to close out the Habs, but failed. In each of the previous three Game 7 situations, Washington was happy to have gotten to a decisive game, having trailed earlier in the series by a game or two.
Now, the league’s best regular season team (121 points) is in peril of a quick first-round exit at the hands of a team that tallied 33 fewer standings points during the regular season. Never before in NHL annals has an eighth-seeded team rebounded from a 3-1 series deficit to knock a No. 1 seed off, but the Canadiens are poised to do so if they can earn one more win.
“It helps us a lot,” says Caps captain Alex Ovechkin of his team’s extensive experience in Game 7 situations. “The experience we have; every series we have seven games. We wanted to finish it up a little early, but I hope we’re going to finish it up [Wednesday]. We don’t want this to be the last game of the year. We want to continue.”
Washington will have to make do without Tom Poti in Game 7. Poti has arguably been the Caps’ steadiest and most reliable defenseman in the 2010 postseason. Poti took a Mike Cammalleri shot in the face while killing a Washington penalty late in the second period of Monday’s 4-1 loss in Game 6 at Bell Centre. Poti suffered a serious facial injury and is out indefinitely. The Capitals have recalled defenseman Karl Alzner from AHL Hershey.
“It could be 2-3 weeks, it could be longer,” laments Boudreau of Poti’s injury. “We don’t know.”
The loss of Poti could be a severe blow to the Caps in an area in which Montreal already has a huge advantage over Washington: blueline experience.
Entering the 2010 postseason, the Canadiens owned the most experienced bunch of blueliners among the eight Eastern Conference playoff entrants with a total of 4,269 career games worth of regular season NHL experience spread among its top six blueliners. That number has dropped a bit with Ryan O’Byrne and P.K. Subban filling in for Jaroslav Spacek, but the Habs still have the most experienced group of reaguards among the Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Washington entered the playoffs with the second-least experienced blueline bunch in the east, and Poti’s 787 games accounted for more than a third of the Capitals’ total. With Poti on the sidelines, the Caps now have the fewest games worth of experience among all Eastern clubs. His absence leaves Joe Corvo (486 games) as Washington’s most grizzled blueline veteran.
“Tom Poti has been great,” says Boudreau. “You lose one of your best experienced players. It’s a tough thing. But this is the playoffs. You lose players. People come in it’s a chance to be heroes. That’s what hockey’s all about. It’s a battle of attrition after a while when you play a team seven times in 10 days or so.”
With a plus-9 through six games, Poti leads the NHL in that department in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Excluding empty-net goals, Poti and partner John Carlson have been on the ice for just one of Montreal’s even-strength goals in the series, and that was in Game 2.
Washington’s offensive woes are directly responsible for its inability to close out this series in five or six games. The Caps were held to fewer than two goals just three times all season, and not once in the season’s second half. But Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak has limited the Caps to just a single goal in each of the last two games.
Halak was torched for eight goals in a span of 40 shots earlier in the series, but he has denied 90 of Washington’s 92 shots on goal in the last two games.
During the regular season, the Capitals boasted the league’s best offense, scoring 3.82 goals per game. Washington also featured the league’s top power play unit with an extra-man success rate of 25.2%.
It has been more than two years since the Caps had any sort of power play drought resembling the one they currently find themselves in. During an eight-game stretch in the latter half of the 2007-08 regular season (Jan. 23-Feb. 8), the Caps went 1-for-24 on the power play, going six straight games without an extra-man tally at one point. Washington still managed a 4-4 record in those eight games.
The Caps’ current situation has them at 1-for-30 (3.3%) with the extra man in the previous six games of the Montreal series. The Caps are 1-for-37 (2.7%) in their last eight games, a span that includes the final two games of the regular season.
In Monday’s Game 6, the Caps launched a franchise record 54 shots on goal, and they fired a total of 94 shots (including those that missed and were blocked) to Montreal’s 47. But the Caps didn’t score until Eric Fehr netter his third of the series late in the third period. By then, it was too little, too late.
“I thought we played possibly our best game of the series,” says Caps forward Brooks Laich. “We attacked nets, we shot pucks from everywhere. There wasn’t much more we could do in that game. Obviously, their goalie played tremendous. But for us, I think we’ve got to come with that same effort and that same attitude of attacking nets. And hopefully we can score a few more goals.”
Scoring a few more goals would help. So would playing with a lead. The Caps have not led in the last two games. They have not led after the first period in any of the six games. Montreal has outscored the Caps 8-3 in the first period, and seven of the Habs’ goals in the first frame have come in the game’s first 10 minutes.
Montreal has managed multiple goals in the first three times in this series. Washington allowed multiple goals in the first period just three times in the first 38 games of the season, but it has done so an alarming seven times in its last 15 games.
Getting an early lead in front of its home crowd could do the Caps a world of good as they try to extend what was the best regular season in franchise history.
“It’s what we all play for,” says Caps right wing Matt Bradley. “It’s fun and it’s nerve-wracking at the same time. You don’t want to be going home after the game; it adds a lot of pressure. But that’s what we play for, those do-or-die games. It will be a lot of fun.”