Whenever the holiday season rolls around each December there are always lines from Christmas carols which become engrained in your head. As a huge country music fan, one such verse that always stands out to me comes from Alabama’s version of “Santa Claus (I Still Believe in You)”:
Oh Santa Claus, I still believe in you
|Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak has stopped 90 of 92 shots the past two games. Credit - Getty Images |
And there's still a kid inside of me that still believes you're true
In case I’ve lost you now while you ponder, ‘Why is he talking about Santa Claus when the rest of Penguins Nation has their dreams focused on Lord Stanley?’ – give me a second to explain my metaphor below.
The above lyric somehow danced into my head earlier this afternoon after spending time in the Penguins locker room talking to the players about Wednesday night’s Game 7 showdown between the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens, which will determine who the Penguins will host in the second round.
As I prepared this morning to write this piece, my original focus was to see how the Penguins would go about watching a game like this. I wanted to get a feel for whether or not they zero in on particular styles or systems played by the two teams, or if they instead focused on the tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of individual players.
While I did end up getting some good insight which I will share below, one common theme I found as I talked to players both on and off the record about the game that surprised me was how many of them plan on watching the game as fans, taking in the unmatched spectacle that is a Game 7.
During these conversations, I realized how excited the players genuinely were to sit back, relax and watch some old-time hockey like they did when they were kids sitting in front of the tube watching Hockey Night in Canada
They don’t want to see where Alex Ovechkin’s favorite spot to shoot is or how Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak could possibly be exposed. Those details can wait until a definite opponent has been determined. Wednesday night is about being that little kid again and realizing how the pressures and excitement of a Game 7 make hockey the greatest sport on earth.
And there you see why some of your favorite Penguins had me thinking about Christmas carols at a time on the calendar when April showers are about to give way to May flowers. Although hockey is their profession, they can still be drawn back to when they were a kid, just like we all do every Dec. 25 when St. Nick comes to town.
However, when I didn’t have players talking about watching the game as fans, I did receive some interesting tidbits on what the Penguins can potentially take from Game 7.
First and foremost, Sidney Crosby
said he doesn’t think either team has the momentum, even though the Canadiens are coming off of back-to-back victories to extend the series after falling behind 3-1, and Washington has the home-ice advantage playing in front of their fans, who will be ‘Rock’n the Red.’
“In Game 7, there is pressure on both teams,” Crosby said. “I think that whether you’re at home or on the road, when it gets to that point, I don’t think that there is much that will really separate the two teams.”
Forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, who plans to watch the game from his room, agreed with Crosby’s assessment that neither team really has an advantage over the other at this point, but he said the Canadiens should expect the Capitals to come out flying early in the contest. Ponikarovsky believes Halak, who has stopped 90 of 92 shots the past two games, could be the great equalizer for Montreal.
“Washington will come out hard and try to throw everything hard at them for the first 10 or 20 minutes, and then follow up on that,” Ponikarovsky said. “If Halak plays a good game then it is going to be pretty tough for Washington to score. He has been pretty tough the past couple games. He has been big for them in net the whole series. If he has a good game then Montreal has a chance.”
Defenseman Jay McKee is one of the Penguins who will be watching this contest with a keen eye. As a veteran of 59 postseason contests, including a run to the Cup Final with Buffalo in 1998, he knows any advantage you can glean from your opponent could be critical moving forward at this time of the year.
“It’s good to watch, even when it’s the Western Conference teams, so you know which players are playing above how they normally play and maybe which players aren’t playing so well,” McKee said. “Every team is a potential enemy so I think it is good to keep tabs on what is going on around the league.”
Forward Pascal Dupuis
talked about the importance of picking up on some of the things teams do and don’t do well when you have the chance, but he did offer up this caution that could factor into why some players would rather watch the game as fans rather than analytically.
|Washington Capitals goaltender Semyon Varlamov hopes to pick up his second career Game 7 victory on Wednesday. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson) |
“You can watch the game and the video but you don’t know how (teams) are going to react to what (the Penguins) are going to bring to them,” Dupuis said.
Because of the great unknown that is how teams match up against one another, McKee said the one thing the Penguins can root for between the Capitals and Canadiens is a multiple-overtime affair which would possibly take some of the gas out of the winner’s engine during a potential meeting with the Penguins down the road.
“To be honest I hope that it goes into quadruple-overtime,” McKee said. “The more games other teams have to play and the longer they have to play the better. Mentally and physically, the playoffs get tougher for each team every series. Every guy in this room would like to see them go through a long game. That only makes it tougher for teams moving along with less rest.”
Ponikarovsky said what makes Wednesday’s game so interesting no matter how you plan on watching it is the great unknown which exists in Game 7s. As hard as we all try, there really is no way to ever predict how a Game 7 will turn out.
“This is going to be an interesting game with it being a Game 7,” Ponikarovsky said. “The Detroit-Phoenix (Game 7 on Tuesday) was pretty much Detroit dominating. We will see what happens this game.”