A series this dramatic and compelling with this many storylines deserves to go the distance, and so it does. A few hours from now, Washington will host its first Game 7 Stanley Cup playoff game in nearly 16 years, and it will attempt to win its first Stanley Cup playoff Game 7 in more than 20 years.
The Caps fell into a 3-1 hole in this series, but Washington bench boss Bruce Boudreau made adjustments even before that, and those adjustments have been paying dividends for a few games now. Flyers coach John Stevens elected to put his top defensive duo of Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen on Caps star left wing Alex Ovechkin. That duo has done a wonderful job of keeping Ovechkin in check. Until last night, they had not been out on the ice for an even-strength goal against in the series.
But while the Flyers swarmed Ovechkin, players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin began to find their playoff legs. Brooks Laich put together the longest scoring streak of his NHL career. And with Ovechkin finding the range twice last night, the Caps now have two dangerously bona fide lines working.
Much was made of Philly’s scoring depth and physical play before the start of the series, but Washington has matched the Flyers in both those departments. The Flyers might have had a goaltending edge early in the series, but that pendulum has swung back in the Capitals’ direction over the last three games. Special teams seem fairly even.
In a one game series, what will make the difference between these two teams?
We won’t profess to know, but here’s something that we’ve noticed. In the last few games, as the Capitals’ secondary scoring has heated up, Stevens has started to back off the ice time given to some of his veteran defenders. Derian Hatcher skated more than eight minutes in the first period of Game 6 to lead all Flyers defensemen. Some of us believed if he continued to see that much ice, he’d be a liability. He didn’t, but he was anyway. Hatcher got worked for Washington’s second goal, and he was on the ice for just 4:31 of the third period.
Jason Smith has been a frequent site on the ice after Washington goals in this series, skating off with sagging shoulders. He ranks among playoff leaders in blocked shots, but his minus-6 is worst on the team and second worst among all 323 playoff skaters (New Jersey’s Paul Martin finished at minus-8, good for the golf course, but not for the ice). Smith skated just 11:56 in Game 6, exactly six fewer minutes than he averaged during the regular season.
Now faced with a Game 7 just one night after his team dropped its second consecutive contest in Game 6, it will be interesting to see how Stevens handles his blueline tonight. Will he scratch Hatcher and/or Smith and go to youngster Ryan Parent (14:59 a night in 22 regular season games) and/or Jaroslav Modry (minus-15 in 24 regular season and playoff games combined)? Modry’s father just passed away in his native Czech Republic, and we’re not even sure if he’s available to play. But you can see the conundrum that faces Stevens.
On the other side of the coin, Boudreau’s confidence in the defensemen at the back of his depth chart seems to be going in the other direction. John Erskine averaged 15:43 in 51 regular season games, and Steve Eminger skated just 11:08 in 20 regular season tilts. Both players were plus-3 in Game 6, and both made significant contributions. Erskine led all skaters on both sides with five hits, and Eminger placed a perfect breakout pass on Laich’s stick to start the rush that led to Washington’s first goal in Game 6, the goal that started the comeback from a 2-0 deficit.
Erskine logged 19:10 in Game 6 and Eminger skated 17:36. Washington’s defensemen figure to be a bit fresher tonight, and they’re also younger. Philly’s defense could be vulnerable against the Caps forecheck and cycling game low in the offensive zone. They were in the first half of Game 5 and in the second half of Game 6. The trick for the Caps, who obviously also played last night, will be getting that hard forecheck going on a consistent basis.
Then there’s Philly’s power play. They’ve scored six times with the extra man in the series, including two times last night. They love that back door play and work it well. Washington has been “enduring” Flyers power plays almost as often as it has actually “killed” them in this series. That said, the Caps power play has struck on seven occasions. And both teams have been burned by having too many men on the ice. Discipline, as always, will be a factor.
Finally, the goaltending. Martin Biron is 0-5 in the second half of back-to-back starts this season, and he has not won a game in that situation since Nov. 11, 2006. Cristobal Huet is 1-2 in the second of back-to-back starts this season; his most recent win was a few months ago, on Dec. 28. Furthermore, Biron is 2-7-1 with a 4.85 GAA and an .845 save pct. in the second of starts on consecutive nights since the lockout.
Washington has allowed just one even strength goal in the last two games, and just two in the last nine periods of hockey. We mentioned that Biron might have had a goaltending edge early in the series, but Huet has a .929 save pct. in the last three games while Biron is at .907 over the same span.
None of the above matters, of course. Only what the coaches and players do behind the benches and on the ice in front of our anticipatory eyes a few hours from now does.
Game 7. It’s been a while. Savor it.