1. No Pressure
It’s Game 7 and neither team’s feeling the pressure... nope, not one bit. The Caps have been there, done that, and have the rings to prove it (or, if the ‘Canes prefer, they can just turn their gaze to the rafters at Capital One tonight). Via NHL.com:
“The thing we had success with last year was the situation didn’t bother us at all, we just played our game,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said after an optional practice Tuesday. “That’s one thing that we could’ve done better in this series, and now we have a chance to keep improving on that with an opportunity to win a series. Every year’s different. You just take where you’re at and get the best out of your team.”
Devante Smith-Pelly on Caps and Game 7: "We've been here before. We've done it before. I think that's everyone's mindset. I don't think there's going to be nerves or anything like that."— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) April 23, 2019
‘We’ve been here before, we’ve done it before’: Capitals balance past success with Game 7 peril https://t.co/JxSKfqUX29— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) April 23, 2019
“You gotta have that attitude. You gotta have that swagger,” Staal told The Athletic. “You have got to have that belief in the group that you’re going to find a way. Tonight’s no different. When you’re down a goal against a good team that plays defense, you’ve gotta stick with it. This group has been resilient. We’re going to find a way to do it on the road.”
We’ll see. But the good news is that no one’s feeling the pressure, so expect a good ol’ mistake-free hockey match.
Back to Holtby for a second, though; this ain’t his first rodeo and, despite being on the wrong side of a few tough losses, he’s been very good in Game 7:
That’s a 3-4 record, but a 1.81 goals against average and .934 save percentage. Throw out that abysmal home loss to the Rangers (because why not - he’s gave up as many goals that night as he has in his last four Game 7 appearances combined) and that leaves him with a level 3-3 record despite a brilliant .953 save percentage and eye-popping 1.29 GAA. Yeah, that’s one guy you probably don’t have to worry about tonight.
Oh, and one ex-Cap (no, not Justin Williams) thinks his old club will get the job done...
Caps have one believer: Philipp Grubauer, who told our @pgraham34— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) April 23, 2019
“In those crucial moments, in those important moments, it seems they always find a way to get it done. I think they’ll probably get it done.” https://t.co/P1IojBGUIn
Miss u, Grubi!
2. Home Ice
As you well know, the home team has won each of the first six games of the series, leaving the Caps with a chance to win four home games in a round for the first time in franchise history.
So what gives? Is it the fans? The locker room? The routine? Something else? Via NBCSW:
“I would definitely say a big impact has been the fans in both arenas,” Nic Dowd said. “And then for whatever reason, it kind of seems like each team has brought a different game on the road vs. at home.”
“Maybe it’s just feeding off the crowd or them wanting to play well in front of their fans,” Devante Smith-Pelly said. “It’s been a weird series that way. I’m not really sure why it’s been that way, though.”
“The rinks are a lot of different, and not crowd or anything, but the actual rink -- the ice, the boards, size, everything is different,” Braden Holtby said. “That might have a little bit to do with it. You’re more comfortable in the arena you play in a lot, so that might have a little bit to do with it.”
When pressed on what those differences are, Holtby said, “The ice there is different; it’s bouncy. We play a more skilled kind of game, puck-moving, and sometimes you have to simplify a lot more there. The boards there are inconsistent. Every rink is different in that way, and you try to test that out. I think moving forward, if we’re in this situation again, you’ve just got to do some more homework on it because you control the controllables and they’re fun challenges every time you’ve got different, unique setups like that.”
Other than the very obvious - wins - how has home-ice advantage shown itself in the series so far?
Not in the face-off circle, where the Caps have won 44.3 percent of draws in front of their red-rocking home crowd, but 49.4 percent away from Capital One Arena. But in terms of score- and venue-adjusted five-on-five shot metrics, the Caps’ home/road splits show a bit of an uptick at home across-the-board, with a big spike in terms of high-danger chances:
- CF%: 42.5 home, 37.0 road
- SF%: 43.9/36.5
- SCF%: 46.3/40.4
- HDSCF%: 53.2/33.1
- xGF%: 42.5/36.1
The special teams battle paints a starker split, as the Caps’ power play has gone 5-for-12 (41.7 percent) at home and just 1-for-9 (11.1 percent) on the road, while the penalty kill has gone 12-for-13 (92.3 percent) at Cap One and 9-for-11 (81.8 percent) at Whatever It’s Called Arena in Raleigh. That’s a special teams index of (a staggering) 134.0 at home and (not good) 92.9 on the road. As bad as the power play looked on Monday night, it may be reasonable to expect it to look a lot better tonight... if given the chance.
And if you’re looking for another big home/road split, consider Evgeny Kuznetsov: in 39 home games during the regular season, Kuzy tallied 17 goals and 29 assists (1.18 points per game); in 37 road games, he managed just 4 goals and 22 assists (0.70 ppg). In the playoffs? Three home games, five points (all primary assists); three road games, no points (all empty). Kuznetsov leads the Ovechkin Era Caps in series-winning goals (game winners in series clinchers) with his memorable scores against the Islanders and in overtime against the Penguins last spring, and tonight would be a great time for him to have yet another impact elimination game.
(And if those splits are the result of Todd Reirden’s ability to get Kuznetsov’s line out against favorable competition at home... keep on keepin’ on, TR.)
Anyway, we’ll go back to Dowd, via NBCSW, to, err, bring us home on this point:
“We work our [expletive] off all year to get home-ice advantage and we’ve earned it for this exact moment.”
3. The Bottom Line
What else is there to say? It’s Game 7 and while the first six games (and the 82 that preceded it) may give us some clues as to what to expect, just about anything can happen. Here’s Todd Reirden, via NHL.com:
“The consistency hasn’t been there through the series, but it doesn’t matter now, it’s one game,” he said. “We know we’d take our team in any one-game series, so the confidence doesn’t waver that way. We just need to do the work and get that full commitment that we’re going to need to win a hockey game.”
So take a deep breath and remember - no matter what happens tonight, last spring still happened.