Photo by Brian Murphy for The Sports Capitol

Game 7 nothing new for capitals


AT TSC HEADQUARTERS – One win away. That is all it will take for the Capitals to play for a Stanley Cup for just the second time in franchise history. The biggest game of the Alex Ovechkin era is upon them and the physical and mental price has been steep.

“I’m tired right now,” forward T.J. Oshie admitted after Washington kept its season alive with a 3-0 win Monday against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Oshie scored the pivotal goal, a power-play snipe in the second period from the high slot where he’s made his living every bit as much as Ovechkin makes the left face-off circle his home. The Caps played a determined, committed game and that was enough to force a Game 7 at Amalie Arena on Wednesday at 8 p.m.  

“They were desperate. They played with that desperate hockey and we should have matched it and we didn’t,” Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. “They played like their lives were on the line and we played like we had another chance and that’s unfortunate, but we’ve got to change the script now in Game 7.”       

It’s a tough thing to simulate when you have another chance and you know it. The Caps have actually become adept at avoiding that in recent years by closing out series in Philadelphia, Toronto, Columbus and Pittsburgh in Game 6 road games. They have not been as good in Game Sevens, unfortunately. But they have life now thanks to a punishing, physical style of play that left Tampa Bay reeling Monday.

Expect a response from the Lightning. Their core group, including captain Steven Stamkos, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat — the famed Triplets for their work together as a line in 2015 en route to the Stanley Cup Final — has been here before.

Add inexperienced playoff veterans like Callahan, Anton Stralman, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh – who all cut their teeth earlier this decade in playoff battles with the New York Rangers – and you’re not likely to see this team fold under pressure. The Lightning was up 3-2 on those Rangers in 2015, lost Game 6 at home and won Game 7 to take the Prince of Wales Trophy.

But Tampa has been on the other side of that, too. Up 3-2 on the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016 in the Eastern Conference Final, the Lightning again lost Game 6 at home. This time it cost them. The Penguins won Game 7 and advanced to the Stanley Cup Final. That was coach Jon Cooper’s message to his team Monday before Game 6. For whatever reason, it was not heeded.

“I’ve been on both sides of it: up 3-2 lost, down 3-2 won,” Cooper said. “I’ve seen it go every different way. You just have to impart to your team this is the night. Game 7’s not an option. It’s Game 6 and let’s end it and you have to have that attitude.”

It is a decided option now because they didn’t end it. The Lightning had a wonderful start at Amalie Arena to get an early 3-0 lead in Game 5, but bunkered down and barely escaped with a 3-2 win as the Caps brought tremendous pressure late and almost tied it several times were it not for the heroics of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Of course, the Capitals have years and years of Game 7 experience, too. This is nothing new for them – even if they’ve never gone as far in the playoffs as this version of the Lightning. Forgot the generation of struggles in these pivotal games. We all know the horrific history. But the Capitals seem to be a different team, though no one is really sure when that started.

“Some time in the Pittsburgh series. Can’t tell you the exact moment or why it happened, but something felt different about it,” Washington defenseman Matt Niskanen said told reporters in Tampa on Tuesday. “I just think that our ability to respond, our ability to stay with it is so much better this spring. We just play. We play the game hard and a bounce or a good save by the other team’s goalie, we just keep coming. That’s how we’ve played the series so far.”

The Capitals are playing their 11th Game 7 in the Ovechkin era dating to the 2008 first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers. That one ended in overtime with defensemen Tom Poti in the penalty box. Think players don’t have long memories? Ovechkin referenced that long-ago penalty call when chatting with reporters Tuesday afternoon in Tampa. They never forget.

Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have played in the 10 previous Game Sevens. Among active NHL players, only Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara (12) has appeared in more. In fact, only six players in league history have played in more: Patrick Roy (13), Scott Stevens (13), Glenn Anderson (12), Ken Daneyko (12) and Stephane Yelle (12).

Washington has lost Game Sevens at home during the Rock the Red era to Philadelphia (2008), Pittsburgh (2009), Montreal (2010) and the New York Rangers at home (2013) and on the road (2012, 2015). The Penguins also beat it at Capital One Arena in 2017. Washington’s wins: the Rangers at home (2009), Boston on the road (2012) and the New York Islanders at home (2015). It is a checkered, painful past at 3-7.

Kuznetsov scored the last game-winner for the Caps in a Game 7 with his memorable goal late in the third period of a 2-1 win in 2015. John Carlson, goalie Braden Holtby and forward Jay Beagle have all played in many of these Game Sevens. Brooks Orpik has won the Stanley Cup twice with the Penguins. Tom Wilson, still just 24, has appeared in three. The experience is there on both sides. No excuses. They will play one game to determine who will face the Vegas Golden Knights beginning Monday for the only prize that matters.

“We don’t have satisfaction, yet,” Ovechkin told reporters in Tampa on Tuesday. “We still don’t reach our goal. [Wednesday] is going to be a huge step forward and it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be exciting. We can’t wait until the game starts.”

Brian McNally is a senior staff writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He is also an award-winning multi-media journalist, who has covered the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times and 106.7 The Fan and major events like the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA playoffs, NFL Combine and NFL Draft.

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