Welcome to the Pittsburgh Penguins vs Washington Capitals Game 7 Preview! Mike Drakulich of Pittsburgh SportsNation brings you behind the bench with a quick preview and prediction of the Penguins and Capitals Game 7 match-up!
There’s nothing more magical than the words “Game 7” when it comes to the NHL Playoffs.
It’s the game where legends are born and stories are told for a lifetime.
The Pittsburgh Penguins will have history on their side when the puck drops tonight between them and the Washington Capitals.
Pittsburgh has defeated Washington in eight of the nine times they’ve faced each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Penguins are 3-0 against the Capitals in Game 7’s.
The last time these two teams met in a Game 7 was 2009, also in Washington in the second round. Pittsburgh clobbered Washington 6-2, aided largely by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s early game save on an Alex Ovechkin breakaway.
All the previous stats in the world aren’t going to help the Penguins in this game if they continue to play hockey they way they have the past 80 game minutes.
In Game 5, the Penguins were 20 minutes away from the Eastern Conference Finals, as they held a 2-1 lead entering the 3rd period.
Since the puck dropped to start the 3rd period in that game, the Capitals have elevated their game to new heights, outscoring the Penguins by an 8-2 margin, storming back to win that game 4-2, and then humiliating Pittsburgh 5-2 in Game 6 on Monday.
The Capitals physical style has neutralized the Penguins offensive style of play. With Kris Letang out, the Penguins knew they were going to sorely miss Letang’s ability to skate, control the puck, and lead the breakout of the defensive zone. With Trevor Daley also injured now, it even hampers Pittsburgh’s transition game even more.
Pittsburgh doesn’t have time to cry about it’s two best puck-moving defensemen being out. In yesterday’s practice, Head Coach Mike Sullivan was instructing his Penguins on dictating tempo and pace. Brian Dumoulin, Ron Hainsey, Olli Maatta, Justin Schultz, Ian Cole have to be up to the task, or it’s curtains for this year’s Cup hopes.
Pittsburgh, if they wish to continue their journey in defending their championship, will have to play at the top of their game and match Washington’s intensity shift for shift. The crowd will be loud and intense, and the Capitals will be looking to feed off of that as soon as the puck drops. The best way for the Penguins to counter that is to get to their speed game early and get as many shots on Braden Holtby as possible. An early Penguins goal would silence the crowd and plant the seeds of previous playoff failures right into the minds of both the crowd and the Caps players.
“We’re excited about this opportunity,” coach Sullivan said. “This is why we’re all in this business. We all love the competition. We love the opportunity to compete in order to attain the ultimate goal, and these types of moments are the most exciting moments to be a part of. I think that’s the way our whole group is looking at it, myself including. This is a great experience. It’s a great opportunity for all of us. We’re excited to play.”
In a game 7, anything can happen. A crazy bounce can change the momentum in a heartbeat.
Mainly, though, you have two hungry dogs fighting over a piece of meat, and the hungrier dog is going to end up the one satisfied at the end of the day.
Who will be the hero tonight that their team’s fans will talk about 10 years from now?
The Caps Justin Williams is the closer of all closers in NHL lore. He is known as “Mr. Game 7”.
The Capitals winger has earned the nickname with seven goals and seven assists in the seven Game 7’s he has played in his 16-year NHL career. His team has won all of those games.
Pittsburgh has a few legends of their own.
Carl Hagelin is 7-1 all-time in Game 7’s, including 3-0 when facing the Capitals.
Matt Cullen has never lost a game 7 before. He is 5-0, including one of those games being for the Stanley Cup, as he had two assists in Carolina’s Cup-clinching victory over Edmonton in 2006. Like the Penguins, the Hurricanes dropped games 5 and 6 before surviving game 7.
“It’s playoff hockey,” Cullen said. “We have experience with this. We’ve dealt with it in the past. It’s never easy losing a game, especially at home when you have a chance to close it out. We chalk it up as a missed opportunity. It’s one of those things in the playoffs where you can’t dwell on them long.
“We know our recipe for success. We need to get to it and we know that.”
If the Penguins line-up is as expected, 15 of the 20 players will have played in a pressure-packed game 7, including the game’s best player in Sid Crosby.
“I think experience helps, whether it’s Game 7 experience, playoff experience or just knowing what you need to do to prepare in big games,” Crosby said. “We’ve played a lot of them as a group. We always respond the right way.”
Pittsburgh has the firepower to outscore anybody. With the likes of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Phil Kessel roaming the ice, there’s no excuse for Pittsburgh not ramping up their effort and going all out.
The funny things about game 7’s are that they aren’t always decided by the elite players. Usually, the heroes emerge from the unexpected. Bryan Rust scored Pittsburgh’s only two goals in Game 7 vs Tampa last year in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Who will be the hero this time around? Nick Bonino? Conor Sheary? Jake Guentzel?
Or, will perhaps Washington exorcise the ghosts of the past, and finally defeat their nemesis’ once and for all?
The Penguins have looked awful since the 3rd period of Game 5. There is no doubt that Washington is getting away with a lot of interference with their physical play, and right now, they look unstoppable. The winner of this game will be the heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup. None of the teams remaining can match either team’s skill level. This is a game where champions rise to the occasion, and I believe the Penguins will reach deep down inside their souls and come out swinging.
Pittsburgh has to find a way to start the offense from their own end. Coach Sullivan was big on that in practice yesterday. Careless passes and turnovers have to be eliminated. Every shift has to be played as if time is running out. There is no tomorrow. At this point of the season, everyone is tired, battered, and bruised, but the rewards are worth the pain. I’d advise the Penguins to raise their physical play as well. Finish off checks. Get under Washington’s skin. This is a game where Crosby, Malkin, and Kessel need to take the team by the reigns and lead by example.
Ovechkin and the Capitals are a hungry group. From top to bottom, they have the better team with the injuries the Penguins have sustained. This may be the Capitals last chance at a Stanley Cup, as the salary cap looms and many hard decisions will have to be made by Capitals management after the season.
That said, I see Jake Guentzel being the hero of the night, crushing the Capitals hopes with a late goal, and leading the Penguins to a pulse-pounding 3-2 victory over the Capitals.
- Goalie Matt Murray is healthy enough to back-up Marc-Andre Fleury tonight.
- Expected Pittsburgh Penguins line combos:
Jake Guentzel-Sid Crosby-Bryan Rust
Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-Phil Kessel
Conor Sheary-Nick Bonino-Patric Hornqvist
Carl Hagelin-Matt Cullen-Cater Rowney
NHL Eastern Conference 2nd Round
Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals – Game 7
Venue: Verizon Center, Washington, D.C.
Game Time: 7:38 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: 105.9 The X (Pittsburgh)