May 12 vs. New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden
Time: 7:30 pm
Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network
Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 3 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 3 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (42-32-8), 92 points
New York Rangers (51-24-7), 109 points
Game 7, Eastern Conference semifinal series (Series is even, 3-3)
It has been exactly two weeks since the Capitals and New York Rangers started their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. On Saturday in New York, the Caps and Blueshirts will play the deciding Game 7 of their series, determining which of them goes on to meet the New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference final.
The Caps opened their 2012 pursuit of the Stanley Cup exactly a month ago in Boston. Washington navigated its way through that series, winning Game 7 on the road in overtime to move on to their second-round series with the Rangers.
Having that positive Game 7 road experience against the Bruins on their résumé is an asset for the Capitals. This time around, Washington is facing a New York team that won Game 7 in its own building in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I think it helps a lot because we know what kind of atmosphere it’s going to be,” says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner. “I don’t think there are too many more hostile environments than Boston for a Game 7. We know that, we know what it’s going to be like and not to pay attention to the fans and what’s going on besides what’s happening on the ice. It’s just remembering exactly how we prepared and how we had to play it. I think last game was pretty much a Game 7 for us; that’s the way we played. I think we have to bring that back. You don’t want to overthink it, just go out and play hockey.”
That Game 7 in Boston was the first of two potential elimination games for the Capitals in the playoffs this spring, and needless to say they’ve won both. New York has also faced two elimination games in the 2012 and has obviously also won both games.
New York and Washington have traded victories in this series. The Caps have yet to lose consecutive games in the 2012 playoffs, and they’ve only won consecutive games once – Games 4 and 5 of their first-round series with Boston.
Washington has won one of the three previous games played in New York in this series; that was Game 2. Not coincidentally, that was the only game of the three in which the Caps had a reasonably strong start in the game. Their start wasn’t as good as that of the Rangers in that contest, but they capitalized on a pair of mistakes to take a 2-0 first-period lead on their way to a 3-2 win.
The Caps rode strong starts to wins in each of their last two victories in the series, both on home ice. They know they’ve got to bring all they’ve got from the drop of the puck in Saturday’s Game 7.
“I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all for us,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble, “but obviously a great start is huge. Getting the first goal is always big, especially in a Game 7. It takes a load off. Can you go into the game and feel like it’s over after the first goal? You sure can’t. But it helps things.
"Somebody’s going to get the first one, right? I guess it’s a 50/50 shot. Everything in this whole series is 50/50. There’s no doubt you want to get the first one in a Game 7, though.”
Caps left wing Jason Chimera drew a penalty in the second minute of Wednesday’s Game 6. The Caps scored on the ensuing power play, and never trailed for the rest of the night.
“That’s the biggest thing, you’ve got to get off to a good start,” says Chimera. “You want to get off to a good start like we did at home here and get out early, jump on them early and make them do things they don’t normally do.
“When [the Rangers] are down, they tend to pinch their [defensemen] a little more. You get more 2-on-1s. You want to get up on them and keep the pedal to the medal. They’re going to come out hard, obviously. We’ve got to be just as desperate. We’ve got to come out just as hard. We’re on the road, but it’s the same two teams going at it. You’ve just got to come out even harder.”
Another key for the Caps in Game 7 will be to play with discipline to ensure that as much of the game as possible is played with five skaters a side. New York scored three five-on-five goals in its 3-1 victory in Game 1 here two weeks ago, but the Rangers have managed just four goals in five-on-five play in the five games since, covering a span of 367 minutes and 46 seconds.
Washington has scored at least one five-on-five goal in each of the six games while the Rangers have gone without a five-on-five goal twice in the six games. Each of the last five games of the series has been decided by a single goal, and the Caps own a 7-4 edge in five-on-five goals during that stretch. The Rangers have outscored Washington by a combined total of 6-4 in all other goals over the same span.
“It’s an area of the game where we want to keep it that way,” says Caps center Brooks Laich. “We want to keep it five-on-five, or be on the power play. We don’t want to get into four-on-four situations or be down a man. Discipline is very important for our group. Our penalty kill has been doing a great job, but you’re playing with fire the more penalties you take because you’re giving their offensive players more ice. At five-on-five we feel we have a very strong team and if we can keep it there we feel like we have a very, very good shot at winning the game.”
This will be Washington’s sixth Game 7 experience in the team’s last five trips to the playoffs. Having been there before gives the Capitals a good barometer of how amped up they need to be.
“It’s different,” says Alzner of the Game 7 experience. “You always try to play with that intensity and come out feeling unbelievable, but sometimes it’s just not there. It’s almost impossible to not have that [intensity] in a Game 7.
“The one in Boston, guys were just so fired up in the dressing room. I’ve played in some pretty big games, and that was the most fired up I’ve seen a group of individuals. It was really, really cool to see. It comes from within and everybody knows not only how important it is but how much fun it is. And that’s the best part about hockey, that competitive nature.
“The nice thing is remembering what that feeling is, and if you catch yourself not being as focused as you should be or as up as you should be, then you know where you need to get yourself. That’s what we use the warm-up for and you use your teammates for. It’s nice to be familiar with the situation. You don’t want to be in too many of them, but when you are you’ve got to enjoy it.”
As for the Caps, they’re still kicking and ticking. They lost a heartbreaker on home ice in triple-overtime in Game 3, but rebounded to win Game 4. The Capitals lost a stunner when the Rangers’ Brad Richards scored a power-play with 7.6 seconds remaining in Game 5 to force overtime and Marc Staal scored with the extra man early in overtime to win it. But Washington again rebounded to force Game 7 with a 2-1 Game 6 win in the District.
Now, the Caps must alter the pattern of alternating wins if they want to move into the third round of the playoffs for the first time since 1998. They’re facing a team that hasn’t been to the third round since 1997.
“You’re looking more at yourself,” says Knuble. “We know the deal on the ice. We were in the same position in Boston. We know what’s going to be thrown at us. We know what’s going to happen on the ice. Guys tend to look more internally, look at yourselves a little more and little things here and there, because it’s going to come down to the little things.
“It’s going to come down to one little thing. So you’re just trying to have all your bases covered and talk about everything you could possibly talk about, and hope that a player at a key moment sees something developing and either reacts or converts. Or he sees something that he saw throughout the course of the series or on film that they can apply immediately in a situation and win the game.