We all know that the fourth win of a best-of-seven set is the hardest one to nail down, but the Caps have shown a great deal of economy in these situations of late. Washington has Game 6 in each of the last five series that have gone that far, and Game 6 has been the closeout contest in three of those series. In winning the Stanley Cup last spring, the Caps were successful at snuffing out each of their four opponents in the first possible opportunity.
"We don't pay attention to those numbers as much as you guys do, obviously," says Caps right wing Tom Wilson. "But I think that killer instinct that you need to have. Whenever there is another game or another period or whatever, it gives a team a chance to stick around and it's important to have that killer instinct when you can, and deal with it. We are going to try to bring our best game tonight, and if we do that, we're confident that we'll have a good chance."
Washington has finished each of its last five playoff series wins on its first opportunity to do so. Although momentum and everything else resets from game-to-game, Caps coach Todd Reirden mentioned on Sunday that his team's Game 5 performance can serve as a blueprint for how their collective game needs to look going forward.
"I would say that our ability to get in on the forecheck was really important," says Reirden of his team's Game 5 showing. "And when we got there, we were physical. And 'physical" is different for Tom Wilson than it is for Carl Hagelin. You still can get in and pressure the player - the defenseman or the forward, whoever is going back - but they need to have time and space taken away from them. When you have a chance to be physical, it has a positive effect, not only on your bench and your buy in from your team, but it also leaves a mark on the opposition.
"That was a big part of our success last game. Also, we spent a lot more time in the offensive zone than we have in the past That's a away to wear down the opposition of a really good skating team. They love to have their defense active in the rush, so we've got to continue to put pucks behind [their defense], physicality all over the ice is of huge importance, and then when we have the puck in the offensive zone, hanging onto it."
There have been no lead changes in the first five games of this series. The team that scored first has won every game, and the Caps have yet to score a five-on-five goal in Raleigh in the playoffs. But all of that is in the past, and all that matters to either side is tonight's Game 6.
"No game is the same," says Wilson. "There are a lot of different elements. That's then kind of hockey that we want to play for sure. The energy and the work ethic is something that we need to have - the same amount of that. Hopefully the execution is there and the rest will follow."
Hurt So Bad - Dealing with injuries is an important part of the game all season long, but it's magnified now that we are into the playoffs. Washington is without two key pieces in top-four defenseman Michal Kempny and top-six right wing T.J. Oshie both on the sidelines for the foreseeable future.
The Caps initially tried to fill the Kempny void with Christian Djoos, but when he struggled in the first three games of the series, they turned to 21-year-old defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler, to good effect. Siegenthaler has a better build with which to withstand the heat of the Carolina forecheck, and he has been steady and solid in the first two playoff games of his career. Kempny averaged just over 19 minutes a night during the regular season, and the Caps were able to get more than 17 minutes from Siegenthaler in Game 5.
When Oshie went down, the Caps called up Devante Smith-Pelly from AHL Hershey. Smith-Pelly has played in 395 regular season games in the NHL and has also skated in 49 playoff games, scoring 13 career postseason goals. Seven of those playoff markers came last spring when he helped the Caps win their first Stanley Cup. Oshie skated an average of 18:37 a night during the regular season, and no one player from Hershey is going to be able to come up and skate those minutes, including Smith-Pelly. But the Caps got nearly 11 minutes from Smith-Pelly in Game 5, and they scattered the rest among remaining forwards without taxing anyone too much. They'll need to continue doing so, as Oshie is not returning anytime soon.
Washington is in the playoffs for the 10th time in 11 seasons, so it has not had the luxury of drafting high over the last decade or so. But every summer, the Caps' hockey ops staff sets out to build up the organization's depth as much as possible with college free agents and unrestricted free agents cut adrift by other organizations.
On the other side of the coin, we have Carolina. The Canes are in the playoffs for the first time in a decade, so they've been routinely drafting in the top half of the first round over that time, and they've had five top 10 draft picks since they last made the postseason. Of those five, three (Jeff Skinner, Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm) have been traded away. Another (Haydn Fleury) is expected to be a healthy scratch. And the No. 2 overall choice from last summer's draft - winger Andrei Svechnikov - is in the league's concussion protocol and may or may not play in Game 6.
The Hurricanes are playing without three of their top nine forwards, Svechnikov, Micheal Ferland and Jordan Martonook. All three average better than 14 minutes per night. To replace them, the Canes have used a trio of players who spent time with their AHL Charlotte affiliate this season, an affiliate that finished with the best record in that league, by far.
Saku Maenalanen averaged 9:26 in 36 regular season games for the Canes, and 13:48 against Winnipeg on March 8 was his single-game high. He played 4:16 in Game 2 and 7:43 in Game 4, and his ice time ramped up to 12:40 in Game 5.
Patrick Brown has played 28 regular season games over parts of three seasons in Carolina, averaging 10:14 a game. He skated just 4:34 in Game 4, and the most he has played in an NHL game is 13:47 vs. Montreal on April 7, 2016. Brown's ice time was bumped up to 10:36 in Game 5.
Aleksi Saarela made his NHL debut in Game 5, becoming the first player in franchise history to make his NHL debut in the playoffs. Saarela logged 9:10 in his debut and was returned to AHL Charlotte on Sunday morning. In sending Saarela down, the Canes recalled Clark Bishop, who had a goal and three points in 20 games with Carolina this season, averaging 9:27 a night in the process.
None of the players recalled from Charlotte has played anywhere near the minutes of Svechnikov, Ferland and Martinook. Those minutes have to go somewhere, and in situations such as these, they generally go up the lineup rather than down, meaning Carolina's top six forwards are taking on a heavier workload than usual. That could account for some of the offensive struggles for the Canes' top six in this series.
All three ailing Carolina forwards skated on Monday morning at PNC Arena, but Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour was typically cagey about whether any of them would be able to return for Game 6.
"We'll know when they get off the skate here who is able to go," says Brind'Amour, "and then make decisions from there. So we'll find out."
Martinook was injured most recently, suffering a lower body injury when Dmitry Orlov ducked away from his check in Game 4. Martinook played all 82 games during the regular season, and he is a key presence both on and off the ice for the Hurricanes.
"He is a very, very important part of our team, and underrated," says Brind'Amour. "I haven't heard one thing actually about him being out. It's interesting, all of the injuries you know, and this guy is out in the series and how impactful it is, and no one mentioned and I didn't hear about his name. On our team, he is super, super important for the way he plays, but also for what he brings to the locker room, and just the way he is. So if he can play - and I know he wants to; we'll find out after this morning - he is going to everything he can to get in there."
And if Martinook and the others remain out for another game, Bishop will likely get the nod. Bishop is just back from an injury of his own.
"First of all, he has been hurt and that is one of the reasons we didn't actually bring him up right away, was he hadn't even played in a month," says Brind'Amour. "So that was a big discussion. Now he's got two games under his belt down there.
"He came up and was a really impactful player for us, did a really good job, and then injuries kind of put him back. He's not Jordan, but he definitely has a role and you know what you're going to get out of him. And that's what I love about him. You don't have to worry about him showing up to play. He is going to bring what he can."
Carolina has a much better chance to extend this series to a decisive seventh game if one or more of that trio of forwards is able to answer the bell for Monday's Game 6.
The Canes have had better draft position than the Caps over the last decade, and they've got the best AHL affiliate of all the 31 NHL teams this season. Fourteen players have played for both the Checkers and the Hurricanes either during the 2018-19 regular season or the 2019 playoffs or both, but none have made much of an impact on this series.
Washington's injuries are of the long-term variety while all of Carolina's appear to be more day-to-day situations. But so far anyway, the Caps have been able to deal with their losses better than the Canes have.
In The Nets - Braden Holtby comes into Game 6 on the heels of a 30-save shutout in Game 5 on Saturday night, his seventh career postseason shutout. That moves him one ahead of Olie Kolzig (six) for the top spot on Washington's franchise list in playoff whitewashes.
Holtby has won five straight Game 6 starts in the playoffs, allowing just seven goals in the process. Two of those games went to overtime.
In the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs, Holtby has a 2.40 GAA and a .923 save pct. He has allowed a dozen goals in five games in this series, nine of them at even strength.
Canes goaltender Petr Mrazek stopped 48 of 49 shots here in Raleigh in Games 3 and 4 of this series, pitching a shutout in Game 3 as he helped Carolina square the series at 2-2. But Mrazek was reached for six goals on 28 shots in Saturday's Game 5 loss, the most goals he has surrendered in a playoff game.
Mrazek has been strong on home ice throughout his Stanley Cup playoff career, posting a 4-3 record - with one of those losses coming in overtime - to go along with a 1.58 GAA and a .938 save pct. in seven career home playoff starts. Three of those four victories were shutouts.
All Lined Up - Here's how we expect the Capitals and the Hurricanes to look when they meet on Monday night at PNC Arena for Game 6 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series:
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 43-Wilson
13-Vrana, 92-Kuznetsov, 62-Hagelin
65-Burakovsky, 20-Eller, 10-Connolly
18-Stephenson, 26-Dowd, 25-Smith-Pelly
6-Kempny (lower body)
77-Oshie (broken clavicle)
21-Niederreiter, 20-Aho, 86-Teravainen
23-McGinn, 11-Staal, 14-Williams
13-Foegele, 71-Wallmark, 8-Maenalanen
64-Bishop, 42-McKegg, 36-Brown
44-de Haan, 57-van Riemsdyk
48-Martinook (lower body)
79-Ferland (upper body)