Each Wednesday throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the game that intrigues him most that night. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
Game 7. Nothing like it. Nothing more really needs to be said, but I'll say it anyway.
The New York Rangers earned this Game 7 on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports) by winning Games 5 and 6 against the Washington Capitals.
The Rangers have won five consecutive Game 7s and they're trying to do something no team in NHL history has ever done, which is come back from 3-1 deficits to win a best-of-7 series two years in a row.
They did it last year against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins; now they're trying to do it against Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals.
But the Capitals have every reason to believe they can win this Game 7 even though they're 3-10 in games when they can close out a series since 2009. They played extraordinarily well for 35 of the last 40 minutes in Game 6 and should be carrying confidence into Game 7.
We'll have to wait to see how it all plays out, but you don't have to wait for my pluses and minuses for each team heading into Game 7:
Pluses: In Game 6, they played a way better offensive game. I don't think they played their game at the Garden at all in Game 5. They played a much better game at home offensively, so now they have to take that on the road.
I mean, they had 96 shot attempts in Game 6. NINETY-SIX. I know the Rangers blocked 34 and Henrik Lundqvist saw 45 of them, stopping 42, but 96 shot attempts is a lot and there is a lot they can take away from that on the offensive end.
Part of the takeaway is the discovery of that line with Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jason Chimera and Joel Ward. Coach Barry Trotz basically swapped Ward for Marcus Johansson and it shows that wherever Ward plays, whoever he plays with, he's having an impact. He's a big-time playoff player and Chimera is as well. Kuznetsov is showing he is, too.
Another plus is their physicality on the forecheck, the way they hit on the wall, how they go through guys and really finish their checks.
Minuses: The Capitals need to get better at defending through the middle of the ice.
Look at the goal that Chris Kreider scored in Game 6 to make it 1-0. Although it started on the wall, it went from the wall right down the middle.
Rick Nash's goal, I understand there was some debate on if it should be icing and I can understand why, but even still, he just beat Nicklas Backstrom to the middle. I know there is a size difference between Nash and Backstrom, but Nash didn't have to go around or even through him, he just beat him. He had a wide open lane to attack the net and he carried it all the way across with his reach and then scored past Braden Holtby's outstretched pad.
The Capitals have to clean up their game in the middle of the ice. They're a physical team. We know that. Everybody talks about how physical they are, but some of the Rangers' net entries and access in and around the net was way too easy.
I've already mentioned that the Capitals' physicality on the wall is a plus, but they need to be more physical in the middle of the ice. That they weren't in Game 6 is a minus. They were doing it on the wall and on the forecheck, but you've got to do it in the middle of the ice.
Think about it, where is a guy most dangerous, on the wall or in the middle of the ice? It's obviously in the middle. Guys aren't scoring from the wall on Holtby. They're getting better looks from the middle, obviously. Finish your checks there too, but that could just mean a bump to knock a guy off the puck.
Backstrom also needs to pick his game up. He's such an elite player and is so key to that team from his play-making ability, but he's just falling asleep offensively lately. He's too good of a player to do that. He's an elite player. He's one of the best playmakers in the world.
And with Backstrom not playing up to his elite level, it's taking away some of the impact Alex Ovechkin is having, even though I do think Ovechkin is at least getting his chances.
Pluses: Belief. How about that? Belief. That always goes a long way. That's always an X-factor. That's always a plus.
Derek Stepan said after Game 6 that he felt the Rangers played their worst game of the series and yet, they still found a way to win. Well there you go. That's belief. Even when they're not at their best, they know how to win. That goes a long way to me.
Obviously, Lundqvist has been amazing and that goes a long way, too. He's been beyond amazing, actually.
What Henrik is doing so well is he's staying true to his principles, his reads are excellent, and his patience is good. There is a thin line between being patient and aggressive and to me right now he's toeing that line perfectly. He's battling through traffic.
Players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Ward, Chimera, Brooks Laich, these guys are willing to go to the net and they're good enough to score once they get there. Lundqvist has to contend with a lot of traffic, but he's not getting rattled and he's staying within the moment. He's been himself and that means he's been great because he is.
The other plus is the top two left wings, Nash and Chris Kreider, are playing well. They're the two most physically imposing skaters in the Rangers' lineup and that's how they have to be all the time.
You know Kreider is going to do it, no question about it. This guy flies, he's willing to challenge, cut to the net to the point where he takes heat for it, but you have to credit his willingness to do it.
As far as Nash goes, there are times when he's one of the most dominant players in the League and there are times when he falls off. He has been that guy at times in the playoffs but at times he hasn't, but if you look at his goal in Game 6, Nash was on his offside and he made a decision and attacked the middle of the ice. He didn't settle for a wrist shot. He took two or three strides, cut to the middle and tucked it home. That's a big time play by a big-time player. That's what they need more of.
Nash is capable of being a difference-maker every night, especially in a series that is so physical. Kreider has been that every night.
Minuses: They can't let up right now, and they did in Game 6. They can't play a different game than the one that makes them successful. They tried to do that in Game 6 and it nearly cost them.
Now that they're at home, they can't get comfortable. They have to go win a game by doing the things that they do well. If they try to win any other way, as they tried to do after building a 4-1 lead in Game 6, they won't be happy with the outcome.
If I were them, I wouldn't worry about how they were under siege for really 35 of the last 40 minutes in Game 6, but I know I'd make a concerted effort to go over why it happened and to rectify it because that wasn't good enough.
Sure, sometimes your goalie has to steal you games and the most important thing is they got the 'W', but now they have to increase their odds of getting another 'W' and to do that they have to play tighter in the defensive zone and they can't get hemmed in the way they did.
Think about it, how many looks do you want to give Ovechkin? Do you want to give him as many looks as he had in Game 6? Hey, that's playing with fire.
Do you want Ward to get three shots in a row down on the goal line? I don't care who your goalie is, you probably don't want to do that.
A very skilled Capitals' team got a lot of looks in Game 6. That's a huge minus for the Rangers and if it happens again, hey, they might get burned. Don't keep tempting fate. Baton it down.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Will the Rangers play a speed game and a better defensive game?
They're at their best when they play fast; they can't do that if Washington has the puck, as it did for the majority of Game 6.
2. Can Washington sustain its offensive attack the way it did in Game 6?
That second line with Kuznetsov, Ward and Chimera was excellent. The Rangers will need an answer for it while also keeping in check Ovechkin and Backstrom. That's not easy to do.
3. Which team is comfortable enough to play any way you have to play in order to win the game?
You might get taken out of your comfort zone; how you react to that could be the difference in a win or a loss. And it also could result in another factor, which is discipline. The most disciplined team, the team that commits the fewest penalties, will win Game 7.