Keys to Game 7: Penguins vs. Capitals
It's a series in which the Pens have outscored the Caps by a single goal through six games. They have each won once in the other team's barn. They have played three overtime games and two other one-goal matches. According to the Caps' PR staff, the teams have been tied or within a goal of each other 92 percent of the time in this series.
Still, when the horn sounds sometime Wednesday evening, it will mark the end of the road for one team and the end of one of the most compelling playoff series in recent memory.
"The result is always final," Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said Tuesday of elimination games. "Now both teams have got it, so it magnifies everything."
Here is a look at the things that have to happen for either team to emerge victorious from this great clash of hockey titans.
How Pittsburgh can win1. Crosby and Malkin two is bigger than one
The three big boys in this series -- Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Alex Ovechkin -- have more than delivered the goods, combining for 31 points in the series. But let's do the math. Can the Caps' Ovechkin win a game by himself? Yes, he can. But if Ovechkin, Crosby and Malkin all bring their A-games Wednesday night, it should give the Penguins an edge, given the additional pressure on the Capitals' defenders and rookie netminder Simeon Varlamov.
And make no mistake, Game 7 is all about edges.
From the outset, Crosby has played like a man possessed, and he has scored in four of six games and notched points in five. One imagines Game 7 will be no different. Malkin started slowly, but, over the past four games, has shown flashes of the brilliance that made him the NHL's regular-season scoring champion. In Game 6, he had three assists and six shots.
"I thought the last game [in Washington], they jumped on us early," Crosby said Tuesday. "You expect that when you go into another team's building. You expect the storm. You do your best to prevent it. The fact is, everything is made to be bigger. Every hit seems like a huge hit. Every chance seems like a great chance. It's not always the case, it's the fans. The fans are into it.
"It's clear. It's a Game 7. Somebody is going home. There's not much to think about really, aside from leaving it all out there. We're confident in our teams. It's a great challenge, but we have the confidence we can do it."
Of course, the bad news for the Penguins is that Crosby and Malkin combined for five points in Monday's Game 6 and Pittsburgh still fell in overtime. Still, as Boudreau told his team before overtime Monday, it's all about the law of averages. That's a law that could help the Penguins.
2. The one-legged defenseman factor
The big news out of the Penguins' optional skate at their practice facility Tuesday was that injured defenseman Sergei Gonchar skated for the first time since Ovechkin took him out with a knee-on-knee hit early in Game 4. The rumors were rampant after Game 4 that Gonchar was gone for the season, but the Penguins have been coy about his status and he was on the ice Tuesday, suggesting a return for the series finale in at least a limited role.
"He looked good out there. He's been progressing. We knew at some point he would get back on the ice. This is the first step, and we'll see how he reacts," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said Tuesday before the Pens headed to Washington. "Today was promising, but [Wednesday] could totally change with swelling or something like that. It's just day by day. That's a conversation we'll have after the morning skate and the evening time as well."
Gonchar added little, telling reporters, "I have to wait and see how my body reacts to it. It's going to be a game-time decision. I don't want to say anything else. It's too early. I'm waiting until tomorrow and then we'll make a decision."
The obvious benefit of having Gonchar in the lineup is that, even injured, he likely is going to be more effective than rookie Alex Goligoski, who has looked overwhelmed at times in the two games he has played since being called up from the AHL. If Bylsma continued to use Philippe Boucher as a seventh defenseman, it would allow Gonchar to log power-play time and not have to play heavy minutes. In a game in which calm will be in short supply, having Gonchar's calming influence on the bench and/or on the ice might be yet another small edge in favor of the Penguins.
3. Hide and seek with Jordan Staal
Remember how dynamic Staal's line was in Game 5 as both Staal and Matt Cooke scored their first postseason goals en route to the Pens' 4-3 victory? As they did at times in the first round against Philadelphia, the line put pressure on the Washington blue line on almost every shift. Tyler Kennedy used his speed to dig out pucks behind the net; Staal used his body to great advantage; and the trio buzzed around the net. In Game 6? Not so much. Staal was minus-2 with two shots, Cooke minus-2 with three shots and Kennedy minus-2 with four shots, and the trio was held pointless.
After Game 5, Staal talked about how relieved he was to score, but he will need to find that kind of relief again because supplementary scoring will be one of the keys to success in Game 7. Staal's counterpart in Washington, Dave Steckel, has three goals against the Pens, including the overtime winner in Game 6, and the Caps have won all three of those games. Staal and his mates have to outpoint the Steckel-Boyd Gordon-Brooks Laich trio to keep the Pens in the hunt. They are more than capable, but can they deliver?
4. Our pal Hal
Now, you probably don't read or hear a lot about Pittsburgh defensemen Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi, and they're probably fine with that. But they might have the most onerous task in the playoffs, and that's trying to keep Ovechkin in check.
"It's a tall order," Bylsma said.
Here's the thing, the two have done a solid job, yet Ovechkin still has 13 points in the series. It doesn't take a cold fusion expert to figure out that the more Gill and Scuderi can limit Ovechkin's time and space with the puck, forcing him into more passing than shooting situations, the better off the Pens will be.
Did we mention tall order? It likely won't end up on the score sheet if they're successful, but their reward might be a trip to the Eastern Conference finals if Ovechkin doesn't end up having a monster night.
5. "Flower" power
This has been a strange series for Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. He allowed goals on the first shots he faced in Games 3 and 4, and he has failed to record a save percentage of .900 or better in four of six games. That said, we know from watching him steal a game in Philadelphia in the first round and make sensational saves to keep his team close throughout the postseason that Fleury can deliver. He will need to do more of that Wednesday and must outplay rookie Varlamov if the Penguins are going to move on. Especially crucial will be Fleury's play in the opening 10 minutes of the game, when you can expect the hyped-up Caps to deliver an onslaught of shots.
How Washington can win1. The one-man wrecking crew
Yes, we know it's a team game, blah, blah, blah. But as much as Crosby has been a dynamic force in driving the Penguins forward and overcoming obstacles, Ovechkin has been the same kind of figure on the other side of the ice.
It truly isn't about stopping him but rather trying to stop him from walking off with the crown jewels and anything else he wants to put his hands on.
Last year in Game 7 against Philadelphia, Ovechkin faked a shot and passed to a wide-open Sergei Fedorov for a sure goal except Fedorov wasn't looking as everyone and his dog thought for sure Ovechkin would shoot. This season, Ovechkin's game has matured and he now has a high comfort level, making the soft pass if his wicked shot isn't available. He had three assists in Game 6, which means he will pose a double threat in the Penguins' zone Wednesday night.
And guess what, he loves the idea of playing on the big stage in Game 7.
Of course he's been reading and watching everything that's being said about him and the series, Ovechkin said Tuesday.
"If I'm in this position, why can't I read news about me, what you guys write?" he said. "I love this kind of stuff. I am who I am. I don't want to stop."
Rather than shrinking from the wall of pressure great players from both teams will feel when they step on the Verizon Center ice Wednesday night, Ovechkin embraces it and uses it as fuel. That's bad news for the Penguins.
"I don't think it's going to be drama," Ovechkin said. "It's not a movie. I think it's going to be [a] very sick game. It's going to be a very cool time to play hockey."
2. Been there, done that and really want to do it again
You can argue that whatever happened in Game 6, or any of the first-round elimination games when the Caps erased a 3-1 series deficit against the New York Rangers, means doodley-squat. But the Caps think it means a lot, and maybe that's all that matters.
The Capitals are 7-1 in potential elimination games dating back to Game 82 of last season (a game the Caps had to win to qualify for the playoffs). Then there's the matter of playing in three straight Game 7s dating back to the first round of last postseason, when Washington lost in overtime to Philadelphia at home.
"We're aware of what to expect," Caps defenseman Mike Green said Tuesday. "I think that Game 7, it gets us excited. We seem to play good in those situations and hopefully that's the situation tomorrow night."
The Penguins have not played in a seventh game since the end of the lockout, which might become a slight factor in favor of the Capitals, but Pittsburgh did stave off elimination in last season's Stanley Cup finals by winning Game 5 in triple overtime in Detroit.
Still, throughout this series, we in the media have often cited the Pens' recent Cup finals experience as a factor in why they might defeat the youthful Capitals. Now, with it all on the line, it's Washington that seems to have the edge in experience, for whatever it's worth.
3. The oblivion factor
Until Steckel managed to get his stick on Laich's shot and redirect it past Fleury to give the Caps the victory and tie the series at 3, Fleury had never lost a playoff game in overtime (he was 5-0). Does the loss shake Fleury when it comes time to put it all on the line Wednesday?
One thing seems certain -- Varlamov has put his lone shaky start in the playoffs, in Game 4, behind him. Although he has allowed four goals apiece in Games 5 and 6, Varlamov has stopped 76 of 84 shots as the Penguins continue to hold a wide shots advantage in the series (226-159). All he needs to do is not let Fleury make that one more big save and the Caps will be in good shape. And if he hasn't shown nerves up to this point, there's no need to suggest Varlamov will crack when all the marbles are on the table Wednesday.
4. Sleeping giants wake up
Both Viktor Kozlov and Alexander Semin had suffered through rather forgettable stretches in the first five games, when the Penguins rolled to three straight victories and looked as if they might just roll right on into the Eastern Conference finals. The lack of offensive help for Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom was a major concern for Boudreau and his staff. But on Monday, Kozlov collected two goals and Semin had two assists (he originally was credited with a goal, too, but it later was credited to Laich). It was Semin's best game of the series. Boudreau also talked of Kozlov's wicked shot and how everyone wishes the right winger would use it more.
If both players can bring that kind of production to the table Wednesday, it will take some of the pressure off Ovechkin (not that he needs a pressure release, but you know what we mean) and increase the chances of a Caps victory.
5. Green day
It's funny how perception sometimes crashes into reality. The perception is that Green hasn't been very good in this series, but the reality is that the Norris Trophy candidate has nine postseason points, including four assists in this series. Could he be better? Sure. He has looked a little messy in his own zone, and there doesn't seem to be as much confidence with the puck as we're used to seeing from the swift-skating defenseman.
After scoring 31 times in the regular season, he has just one goal in the playoffs. Luckily for Green, Caps PR king Nate Ewell remembered he had the stick Green used for his record regular-season goal-scoring streak in his office, destined for the Hall of Fame. Green had run out of that particular type of stick (Easton Stealth) and they aren't being made anymore, forcing Green to try to get used to a new stick in the playoffs. Now, he has the option of going back to the lucky stick in Game 7 if he chooses to. Plus, well, he's due to score.
"This has been a great series, and our goal is to come out on top here tomorrow and maybe make history," Green said Tuesday.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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