April 24 vs. Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena
Time: 7:30 p.m.
TV: NBCSN, NBCSW
Radio: Capitals Radio 24/7, FAN 106.7
Game 7, Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Series even, 3-3.
Over the 82-game regular season, only five points separated the first place Capitals and the fourth place Carolina Hurricanes in the Metropolitan Division standings. From the All-Star break to season's end, only one point separated the two, and it was the Canes who were a point better than the Caps over that 32-game stretch.
Six games into the first playoff series ever between the two longtime division rivals, they're all even at three games each. The home team has won all six games in the series to date, and now it comes down to a decisive Game 7 on Wednesday night at Capital One Arena.
"Even if you looked at each of those series last year that we now have as our past experience, they all played themselves out differently," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "Every one told a different story, and that's been the case this year as well.
"Home ice has been a big advantage for teams, and we worked hard to achieve that during the year, and now we have that opportunity to use it. Our Game 5 was our best of the series, and we shouldn't stray too far from that game if we're looking for how to have success in this series. It will be an exciting game."
Any tangible home ice "advantage" is hard to come by and harder to define in the Eastern Conference, where all eight playoff entrants finished the regular season with 20 or more home wins and 20 or more road wins. Four of the six games in this series have essentially been close games, with an empty netter at the end providing punctuation and pressure relief for one side or the other. Each team has authored a blowout win in its own building, too.
Video: Todd Reirden | April 23
Last Saturday night in D.C., the Caps returned home after a two-game humbling at the hands of the Hurricanes in Raleigh in Games 3 and 4. The Caps took Game 5 by a decisive 6-0 count in the District, pushing the Canes to the brink of playoff mortality.
Two nights later in Raleigh, the Canes returned the favor, pulling the Caps out on the ledge with them in a 5-2 victory, setting the stage for Wednesday's cliffhanger. One of these two teams will play its final game of the season that night while the other will move on for a second-round date with the well-rested New York Islanders.
Until the third period of Monday's Game 6, there hadn't been a single lead change in this series. There is always plenty of talk about adjustments from both sides over the course of a playoff series, but so far this series has been as much about responding as it has been about adjusting.
"A lot of times they go hand in hand," says Reirden. "That's a fair statement for sure. How you respond to things that haven't gone your way, it comes with you have to give the players some indication of how it can get better. So then there is an adjustment at that point, and then it's up to them to believe in it and see it through, and then leave everything they have out there.
"Realize that it will be the end of someone's season after this game, and we're excited to have it back at home where we've been able to find the right type of match-ups that I want to have, and in addition to that, the right energy that we've gotten from our fans. We really seem to have played with a lot more possession, a lot more swagger and intensity. That's what I look forward to seeing [on Wednesday] from our group."
As Reirden noted both before and after Monday's Game 6, everyone in the Washington room will need to bring everything they've got to the table. Carolina has routinely done so, but the Caps' performances have been more up and down from game to game, and also up and down the lineup.
Top players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, John Carlson and Braden Holtby have stood out for the Caps throughout the series, while others have seen their share of peaks and valleys. The top forward trio of Ovechkin, Backstrom and Wilson has accounted for 11 of Washington's 17 goals in the series.
Video: Locker Room | April 23
Washington had seven 20-goal scorers during then regular season, and with Oshie out of the lineup, they're down to six. Two of them - Evgeny Kuznetsov and Jakub Vrana - have yet to find the back of the net in this series. When the Caps claimed their first Cup title last spring, they had consistent contributions up and down the lineup. With their playoff existence now in jeopardy, Washington needs more out even the aforementioned stalwarts need to step it up now, if not necessarily in terms of production.
"Our first line has played outstanding and they have carried us for the most part," says Reirden. "I think that's pretty easy to see. But even with them, they have to take an extra step of leadership now with the adversity we're going through without a guy like [T.J.] Oshie in our lineup, and having some younger guys that are playing a little bit more prominent roles. So their leadership is something that they have had to be pushed to new levels on."
"The consistency hasn't been there through the series," says Holtby, "but it doesn't matter now. It's one game. So we know we'd take our team in any game - a one-game series - so our confidence doesn't waver that way. We just need to do the work and get that full commitment that we're going to need to win a hockey game."
In the playoffs for the first time in a decade, the Hurricanes haven't looked at all shaky or tentative. They're a win away from knocking out the defending champs, a team that has been in the playoffs in 10 of the last 11 seasons. Backstrom and Ovechkin will be playing in the 12th Game 7 together, and most Caps have played in at least one. Aside from Justin Williams, only a few Canes have Game 7 experience.
"The difference in this is that everybody knows that there is one team going home after the game," says Canes coach Rod Brind'Amour. "So there is no tomorrow and there is all that. So there is that tension in it. But the Game 7s I played in, it was actually less. I don't know how to explain it. You just know this is it. So there is no tomorrow, you're not playing these guys again, it's just let it all out there. The best team wins a Game 7 series, so that's how I think it's going to go down."