It’s the deciding matchup we’ve all been waiting for. Is Crosby healthy? Can Ovie handle the pressure? Which factors will decide the winner?
It’s on. It’s the type of matchup we dream of seeing when the post-season commences. Sure, it’s dumb that it’s happening in the second round. It should be the Eastern Conference final. But let’s put the complaint aside and savor a Game 7 between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals whenever we get one.
What storylines will decide Wednesday night’s game at the Verizon Center in D.C.? Here are five.
1. MARC-ANDRE FLEURY, AND WHETHER THE CAPITALS HAVE FINALLY FIGURED HIM OUT
Goaltending was supposed to be Washington’s most pronounced advantage in this series. ‘Flower’ was a revelation in Round 1, stonewalling the Columbus Blue Jackets, but Braden Holtby is the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and a back-to-back finalist. You still take him over Fleury 10 times out of 10 if given the option entering Round 2.
Fleury, however, legitimately outduelled Holtby in Games 1 to 4, often bailing out an outchanced Penguins team. He posted a .937 save percentage in the series’ first four contests. Holtby sat at .867. The Penguins won three of those games. Goaltending has been the No. 1 influencer on this series. In Games 5 and 6, both Washington victories, Fleury allowed nine goals and posted an .845 SP. The body language wasn’t great, either. He looked flat-out solved by the high-skill Caps shooters at times, especially in Game 6. Their third, fourth and fifth goals that night beat him high-glove. Is it possible, then, Washington finally has the book on him?
A suddenly human Fleury has shifted power back to the Caps. They should actually be encouraged about winning Games 5 and 6 despite Holtby still not looking like himself, posting a .900 SP. If they get the best version of Holtby Wednesday, the Pens are in big trouble.
2. SIDNEY CROSBY’S BRAIN
We know for certain No. 87 sustained his second concussion in seven months when Matt Niskanen collided with him (that’s right, collided. Not a deliberate attack) in Game 3. And since the NHL teams’ standard for clearing their athletes is being “symptom free” days after brain trauma occurred, he only missed Game 4 and was right back in there for Game 5. In the first period of Game 6, he crashed head-first into the boards behind Holtby.
Was he or was he not examined by a doctor between periods? He said he was. Pens coach Mike Sullivan said he wasn’t. Regardless, Crosby couldn’t be legally flagged by a concussion spotter because, according to an appalling justification from NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the boards have not been “found to be a predictor of concussions.”
If we accept that we aren’t doctors and Crosby might well feel fine entering Game 7, it still seems likely he won’t be himself if he takes another big hit. He’ll be one to watch on the bench after every shift. If he claims to be 100 percent, he’s lying to himself.
3. ALEX OVECHKIN’S SHOT TO SLAY THE MINOTAUR
Ovechkin hasn’t been bad in the series. He hasn’t been consistently good, either. Two goals and five points in six games? Fine. But if he wants to shake the reputation that he isn’t “a guy you win with,” triumphing with a virtuoso Game 7 performance would go a long way.
Not that he deserves that reputation in the first place. Ovechkin has 20 points in 20 career elimination games, including 10 goals. The idea it’s his fault that the Caps can’t get more than halfway through the playoffs remains ludicrous. Fair or not, he’ll need to win a ring to get the xenophobic dinosaurs off his back.
4. MR. GAME 7 GETS TO PLAY ANOTHER GAME 7
Nicklas Backstrom told me last year Justin Williams hates the ‘Mr. Game 7’ moniker and that his teammates prefer to call him ‘Mr. Perfect.’ Either name works in the context of Game 7, though.
Washington didn’t play any Game 7s last spring, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in six games and falling to the Penguins in 6. Williams and the Caps won Game 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 this season. He is a perfect 7-0 in Game 7s and, per Stephen Whyno, Williams also has seven goals and 14 points in those games. The label truly is earned. Wow.
Mr. Game 7 Justin Williams will play his first Game 7 with #Caps in 2nd season in Washington. He has 7 goals, 7 assists, is 7-0 in Game 7s.
— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) May 9, 2017
By sheer virtue of having Justin Williams, the Caps have an edge. We could call it silly superstition, but look at those numbers.
5. BOTH TEAMS’ GAME 7 HISTORIES
Not so fast, Mr. Williams. Another fascinating stat: the Penguins have played five road Game 7s in their franchise history and won each. That’s good for the best road Game 7 record of all-time across the NHL, MLB and NBA. Between that mark and Williams, one amazing streak will end Wednesday, then.
The Penguins are 3-3 in Game 7s since drafting Sidney Crosby. The Capitals are 3-6 in Game 7s since drafting Ovechkin.
Now it’s time to watch the game. It’s anyone’s guess who wins this one. Do the Pens carry their mental edge over a team that constantly crumbles under pressure? Or has Washington finally shown it’s not afraid of Pittsburgh anymore?
Who will win Game 7 between the Penguins and Capitals?
— The Hockey News (@TheHockeyNews) May 10, 2017
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