There is almost nothing in sports better than a Game 7 and we've got one tonight at Verizon Center when the Washington Capitals host the New York Islanders (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2, MSG+, CSN-DC). This has been a great series so far, but what I'm looking for tonight isn't just who will win. We know who the Islanders are. We know they're a young team on the rise looking to make that next step. The Capitals, though, are a team that has been in the mix for years now and we're looking to see if the latest retooling is finally the right one.
This team is supposed to be different. Barry Trotz is supposed to have made this team different. The players sing his praises, but now is the time to show us. Is this team different from the ones Bruce Boudreau had that fell short? Is it different from the teams Adam Oates and Dale Hunter had that didn't match expectations? This is their chance to prove it. The Capitals have Game 7 in their building. Both teams are good, both have played well, but now is when we see if the Capitals are a different team than they used to be.
Beyond the intangibles, there are strategic factors here. I'm not a big believer in home ice, but it does give Washington the last change and that means Trotz can try to keep Alex Ovechkin away from Johnny Boychuk, who really plays him quite well. Getting Ovechkin some space to work with will be a huge advantage for the Capitals tonight if they can find it. Beyond that, Game 7 is less about strategy than it is about will. There are no new schemes to show off or strategies to break out. The Capitals and Islanders have played six times in the past 12 days. They know who is going to hit, who is going to score and whom is going to be matched up against whom.
Tonight we'll see a battle of who will pay the biggest price and who will move on, and that shouldn't be a statement on Ovechkin, who has been derided in the past for not playing a two-way game. Ovechkin, even when he hasn't scored in this series, has played his butt off. He's skating, he's working for his chances and he's played well defensively. So has Nicklas Backstrom. Goals have been hard to come by, though, and in Game 6 on Saturday, John Tavares was the better offensive player. When teams win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs it's often the best players that carry them. It's time to see which great player will carry his team into the next round in what's been the best series of the playoffs so far.
DETERMINATION IN DETROIT
I have to be honest. After the Detroit Red Wings blew a two-goal lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the third period of Game 4 at home, I thought they were done. That was a killer loss, particularly when you consider the Red Wings had to get on a plane and go back to Tampa, but here we are after Game 5 and Detroit is one win at home away from advancing. That win on Saturday was an amazing victory for Detroit, but I really think the game was won in the first 12 minutes. Petr Mrazek made some amazing saves for the Red Wings that kept Tampa Bay off the board until the Detroit could get a power play, score and turn the game around. It took a while for the Red Wings to get going in Game 5, but they managed to do it and now the Lightning are on the brink.
You could say something is wrong with Tampa Bay, and the fact Steven Stamkos isn't scoring is pretty concerning, but this has all been the experience and character of Detroit. The veteran leadership in that room and the coaching of Mike Babcock has created a group that just knows what buttons to push. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall -- they aren't the players they once were, but they're still effective and they know how to win when they have to.
Goalie - DET
GAA: 1.91 | SVP: .937
So now the question is if that leadership will help the Red Wings close out an upset Monday in Game 6 at the Joe (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, CBC, TVA Sports, FS-F, FS-D). Well, I still think this will be a seven-game series. Tampa Bay has played too well in this series not to win this game. The Lightning are getting their chances, but Mrazek, who was a huge question mark before the series, has made great saves against a team that can score and has a great power play and hasn't managed to make good on either of them in the past five games. I feel like that has to turn around at some point. I mean, Stamkos is going to score a couple of goals in this series somewhere, isn't he? I just think the Lightning are too good and have played too well to go down meekly in six games.