In a Saturday conference call with media, Caps coach Barry Trotz responded to a question about the need for his team to show some killer instinct and to finish off its first-round playoff series with the Toronto Maple Leafs, sooner rather than later.
"You get an opportunity to push someone off the cliff," said Trotz, "you need to push them off if you can. The difference is we've got a little bit of wiggle room and [the Leafs] don't."
For the Leafs, Sunday's Game 6 is do or die. The Caps lead the series 3-2 and can end Toronto's season with a victory here tonight. The Capitals might do well think of Sunday's Game 6 as a Game 7, too. Having the "wiggle room" is nice, but the idea is to not have to use it.
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Killer instinct is a concept we discuss frequently at this time of year. And one of the reasons for Washington's checkered playoff history - both more recently and over the last couple of decades - is a lack of killer instinct.
In the Alex Ovechkin era - so, since the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs - the Capitals are 5-15 in games in which they can end a playoff series. And if we shrink that snapshot to just the last three seasons to encompass the Barry Trotz era, the Caps are 2-6 in games in which they can give their foe a shove off the nearest cliff.
Washington should be seeking to convert that "wiggle room" into "breathing room," and using Monday and Tuesday to rest and get ready for a second-round date with the Pittsburgh Penguins rather than using it to get ready for a winner-take-all Game 7 against the Leafs, which would be played on Tuesday night in Washington.
By the time the Caps and Leafs take the ice for Sunday's Game 6, they could be the only first-round series still going. Two teams - the New York Rangers and Edmonton - ended their series in Game 6 on Saturday, taking advantage of the first opportunity to do so. And St. Louis ousted Minnesota in Game 4, its second chance to take the Wild out.
Video: Coach Trotz talks before #CapsLeafs Game 6 in Toronto
"We'll talk about today," says Trotz. "And you'll keep bringing [up] the past, but as I keep saying, there is nothing that we can change - other than the narrative - with this group. And it's a big media thing. This group doesn't really care what's happened in the past. They really care about what's happening now. And that's what's really important for any group. I think it's more the media than anybody else.
"All I know is, the three years we've been here, last year we were really good in Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers. And we played our best game. I know that tonight the Maple Leafs are going to play their best game. I know we're going to play our best game. And if we're going to have success tonight, we are going to have to earn it. They are not going to give it to us."
The Caps did play well in Game 6 against the Flyers last year. They also played well in Games 4 and 5, which were also potential elimination games, only to lose both.
"That's the reality of this sport," says Trotz. "You can do anything you want in life, but nothing gives you urgency until you have your back against the wall and you're in survival mode. And anybody who is in survival mode when you're back is against the wall, you become very, very resilient. I'm expecting a very, very resilient Toronto Maple Leafs team. They've proved it all year, and they've proved it in this series. So we have to be very, very good tonight."
Getting through this series with Toronto in six games has obvious benefits for the Capitals. They avoid a Game 7 with the Leafs, they get extra rest and prep time for Pittsburgh and they go into that series with a three-game winning streak.
You could argue that the Caps have played better hockey in Toronto than at home in this series, and that has certainly been the case early in games. The Caps were dominant over the first 40 minutes of Games 3 and 4 here, and another strong start in Sunday's Game 6 will be of paramount importance.
Video: Babcock talks to the media before #CapsLeafs Game 6
"I don't think we've been as good at the start at home, so I think that's an important part for us," says Leafs coach Mike Babcock. "But you've got to love the opportunity we have. We earned this opportunity; we're right here. You want to play Game 7 in Washington. Come on, you want to. So in order to do that, you've got to earn it.
"I think it was Trotzie who said they've got to push us off the cliff. Well, we've got to make sure that they don't. It's just that simple. But if you're not loving this today or enjoying it, you shouldn't be in hockey."
"It is fun," echoes Trotz. "It's stressful fun, but it's fun. He's absolutely correct. For a player or a coach, this is the fun time of year. You work so hard to get in and when you get in, it is fun and it is stressful at times. But it's fun. It's what you work for, it's why you try to get better and all of those things."
Hocus Focus - Trotz was informed on Sunday morning that some of the Leafs believe they were able to get Ovechkin to lose some of his focus after he returned from a low-bridge hit from Nazem Kadri late in the first period of Friday's Game 5 in Washington.
Ovechkin had to be helped off the ice after the hit, but he was able to return for the start of the second period. He laid out Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner 10 seconds later, and nearly scored four minutes after that.
But yeah, he lost his focus. Sure.
"All I can say is, go back to the tape," says Trotz, who could be seen shaking his head before the question was even finished. "Watch how he played. I didn't think he looked too unfocused. He looked pretty driven, and that's the greatness of Alex. You poke the bear, and he's pretty driven. And I thought he was pretty focused. That's why I kept using him, because he had that look in his eye. They can say what they want. He is on his game right now, and he is going to be a force."
Video: Caps captain Alex Ovechkin talks before Game 6
Five games into this series, Ovechkin and linemates Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie have scored eight of Washington's 16 goals in this series, and they have accounted for five of the Capitals' total of 10 five-on-five goals in the series to date. Ovechkin leads Washington with 25 hits and is tied for fifth in the league in that department during the playoffs.
At least one member of the Backstrom line has scored in each of the last four games of this series. It's enough to make one wonder what that trio might be able to do if only Ovechkin had been more focused in the last two periods of Game 5.
Details - A defensive zone face-off win fueled Washington's 2-1 overtime win in Game 5, just as the Leafs won Game 2 on the strength of an offensive zone face-off win in double overtime. The details of the game are more magnified at this time of year, especially in a low-scoring, tight-checking game where overtime seems likely.
"I think the whole thing is, last game [the Caps] dominated the face-off circle in the neutral zone," says Babcock. "You think about it and it's no big deal; you just lost a neutral zone face-off. But then you end up spending a ton of time in your zone. If you want to have 35 or 30 second shifts, 10 seconds is off that face-off loss, and you're digging it out and trying to get it back. So I think that would be an area we need to bear down on for sure.
"But they're either going to be on our [defense] or we're going to be on their [defense]. There is not a whole lot in between, and both teams are trying to clog up that neutral zone. So I think that's a priority for us for sure."
Getting in on the forecheck and having strong puck possession shifts in the attack zone is a priority for both sides, and we've seen both sides excel and struggle with that aspect of the game at various points of the series.
"I don't think our plan has changed a lot," says Trotz. "We've made slight adjustments, as Toronto has. But in this game, trying to get to the playoffs, you want to get on the other team's defense and they want to get on your defense. You jam it up through the neutral zone and all those things; you win the face-offs.
"All of those details in every area of the game in all three zones become high-quality factors for success If you're good in a lot of areas, then you put yourself in a position to have success. As the series has gone on, you're going head-to-head against an opponent on the other side. It's just trying to wear the other guy down."
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Killing It - The Capitals were nicked for at least one power-play goal in three straight games of this series before tightening it down and thwarting the Toronto power play in all four of its opportunities in Friday's Game 5. Washington held the Leafs without a shot on goal in the first two of those extra-man opportunities.
"I think just our entries," says Leafs forward Mitch Marner when queried as to how the Leafs can improve on the power play. "I think when we get them in-zone, we move the puck pretty well and can make plays. I think we've just got the puck in the zone, that's the thing we've got to start worrying about is getting our speed back and threatening that we're going to go in with it rather than try to pass it around and dump it in."
"When our [penalty kill] is at its best, the entries are hard for teams," says Caps goalie Braden Holtby. "That's when we kill a lot of the seconds off, is making it hard for them to enter with control and getting clears. And I thought we did a great job of that.
"Towards the end of the second [period of Game 5], on that penalty, [the Leafs] had a couple of good looks on that weak side and we cleaned that up quick. We have a bunch of guys that are quick learners. They can process things at lightning speed and make changes, and they were on tonight."
Being able to adapt so quickly against a young team such as the Leafs has been useful for the Caps' killers.
"They kind of just keep switching it up on us," says Marner of the Washington penalty kill. "I think it was messing with our mind a little bit, but, like I said, we went over it a couple of times, now we know what we need to do and we're ready for that."
Not at all surprising for a team that boasts as much offensive firepower as the Leafs do, Toronto finished second in the league during the regular season with a 23.8% success rate on the power play. The Caps shut them down in Game 5, but it's a new game tonight, and special teams will again be a key for both sides.
"Obviously that's a big factor actually for both teams," says Trotz. "During the regular season, I think Toronto was No. 2 or No. 1 in the league and we were right there with them. If you can keep your special teams going through the playoffs, it is a big factor in a series, or it can be. Because of the fact that the five-on-five play becomes so tight at times, that can be a deciding factor. Consistency on the special teams has been huge."
Toronto has actually outscored Washington by 11-10 in five-on-five play in the series, so the Caps' 5-3 lead in power-play goals has been critical to the Washington cause.
Video: Caps players talk to media before Game 6 in Toronto
In The Nets - Holtby stopped 24 of 25 shots to earn the victory in Game 5, rebounding nicely after three straight starts in which he surrendered exactly four goals. The last two times Holtby was dented for four or more goals in three consecutive games happened more than two years ago, but both times he reeled off five straight starts with two or fewer goals against in the immediate aftermath.
Holtby will be seeking to square up his lifetime playoff record tonight; he enters the game with a 25-26 mark in 51 career postseason starts. He had a good comment when asked about the Capitals' need to show a killer instinct in Sunday's Game 6.
"It has been our focus and what we've tried to build all year, just focusing on a single game," says Holtby. "Blocking out all the other circumstances or distractions and just focusing on our game plan, and every player executing it. It's simplifying in that way, and letting our team strength take over. That's going to be our emphasis tonight. It's not thinking about the series or where it's at, it's focusing on tonight's game, what we can do to have success and executing it."
Andersen rebounded from giving up five goals in Game 4 to a strong performance in a losing effort on Friday in Game 5. He stopped 26 of the 28 shots he faced on Friday.
Tonight marks the third time Andersen has backstopped his team in a must-win game in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He is 0-2 with a 3.65 GAA and an .848 save pct. in those two games.
All Lined Up - Here is how we expect the Capitals and the Maple Leafs to look when they take the ice for Game 6 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series on Sunday night in Toronto:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 77-Oshie
90-Johansson, 92-Kuznetsov, 14-Williams
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 43-Wilson
26-Winnik, 83-Beagle, 10-Connolly
27-Alzner (upper body)
11-Hyman, 34-Matthews, 29-Nylander
25-van Riemsdyk, 42-Bozak, 16-Marner
47-Komarov, 43-Kadri, 12-Brown
15-Martin, 24-Boyle, 28-Kapanen
19-Lupul (sports hernia surgery)
23-Fehr (upper body)
46-Polak (lower body)