NHL Playoffs 2012: Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins, Players Who Must Shine

Dave Ungar@@DaveUngar68Correspondent IIIApril 24, 2012

NHL Playoffs 2012: Washington Capitals vs. Boston Bruins, Players Who Must Shine

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    There is nothing quite like a Game 7.

    The mere fact that a series—whether it be in baseball, basketball or hockey—is going to a Game 7 is a clear indication that the series has already been something special.

    That is certainly the case in the epic Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins.

    The Caps came into this series as a No. 7 seed, and most experts picked the defending-champion Bruins to steamroll the Caps in five, maybe six games at most.

    Instead, the Bruins needed an overtime win in Game 6 just to get the series to a decisive Game 7.

    All six games so far have been decided by just one goal. It does not get more even than that.

    At times, it seems like the two teams have undergone radical role reversals, with the Caps playing like the Bruins from last year and the Bruins having to play like the Caps from a couple of years ago.

    It has been one of the most physical, entertaining and closely-contested series in recent NHL playoff history.

    And to top it all off—we get a Game 7, in Boston, Wednesday night.

    For the Bruins, this is nothing new, as they faced elimination in Game 7 three times last year—and they never blinked, not once, as they captured the Stanley Cup.

    For the Capitals, their history in Game 7 has been terribly disappointing. In particular, the last two times the Capitals played a Game 7, a disastrous outcome occurred.

    In the 2008-09 playoffs, the Caps did win a Game 7 when they beat the Rangers to complete a comeback from being down 3-1. Then, they forgot to show up in Game 7 against the Penguins, giving easily their worst performance of the series when it counted the most. 

    As if that was not bad enough, in the 2009-10 playoffs, they could not overcome the No. 8 seeded Canadiens at home, as they suffered one of the biggest upsets in NHL playoff history.

    History favors the Bruins. Experience favors the Bruins. They will be playing at home, which might actually favor the Capitals, who have already won twice in Boston in this series.

    You can analyze trends and history and stats and everything else. But at the end of the day, Game 7 will be decided by the players.

    Here, then, are the six players who need to shine in Game 7 if their team is going to have the best chance of winning tomorrow night.

1. Alexander Ovechkin

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    If there was ever a moment for Alexander Ovechkin to prove to the world that he belongs on the same stage as his archrival Sidney Crosby, this is it.

    If there was ever a time for "Ovie" to prove to his teammates that he deserves to be wearing that "C" on his jersey, this is it.

    But perhaps most importantly, and whether he wants to admit it or not, Alexander Ovechkin needs to shine in Game 7 for himself.

    In his prior Game 7 outings, Ovechkin has come up rather small. He had a breakaway on Marc-Andre Fleury against Pittsburgh a few years back but was denied. If Ovie had scored there, that game would have ended up much, much different.

    Against Montreal, he could have helped the Caps avoid a colossal upset. And, yes, his goal was disallowed, but it was still not a great performance from one of the best in the world.

    In this series with the Bruins, despite being hammered, hounded and harassed relentlessly by Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, Ovechkin still leads the Caps with five points.

    In Game 6, his game-tying goal with less than five minutes to play seemed to energize Ovechkin, and it really seemed as though he was going to get the game winner. For those final five minutes, Ovie was a step ahead of anyone the Bruins tried to put on him. Boston was lucky the third period ended when it did.

    But in overtime, Ovechkin's effort on Tyler Seguin's game winner was terrible. Don't believe me? Look at the replays.

    Nicklas Backstrom, who made the bad pass, was hustling to get back and break up the play.

    Dennis Wideman, who knew right away that Braden Holtby was in trouble, tried desperately to get to the net to stop Seguin's inevitable shot.

    Ovechkin—well he was just casually skating through the defensive zone as though it was a preseason game. There is no excuse for that type of effort in Game 6 of any playoff series.

    Once again, the fate of the Washington Capitals rests upon the shoulders of the man who has, for years now, been their best hope to escape the shadow of futility that has dogged this franchise for decades.

    If the Capitals are truly going to turn a corner and eliminate Boston on the Bruins' home ice in Game 7, Alexander Ovechkin will have to be one of the men who takes them there.

2. Milan Lucic

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    To me, Milan Lucic feels like a volcano about ready to explode.

    The Capitals have kept him pretty well in check for six games, but some of that has been luck—and the rest of it has been Braden Holtby. That was particularly true in Game 6 when Holtby had at least two great stops on Lucic.

    Regardless, Lucic has yet to find the back of the net, and if the Bruins are going to win in Game 7, he is one of the guys who will have to stand out.

    It is not as though he is having a bad series, though. He does have three assists and a plus-two rating, so his contributions to the effort cannot be denied.

    But when you look at his regular-season stats, it is hard to deny that he has come up a bit short thus far.

    He was third on the team with 26 goals during the regular season and fourth for the B's with 61 points.

    But there is hope for Lucic. The past few games, more and more of the big guns for the Bruins have been connecting, capped off by Tyler Seguin's game-winner in Game 6.

    It sure seems like just a matter of time before Lucic gets a goal of his own. The question now is whether the Bruins will run out of time before that happens.

    One thing Lucic might want to do is take a page from Seguin, who started shooting the puck more, which, in turn, seemed to get him going. Seguin was robbed by Holtby in Game 5 but then got his revenge, and then some, in Game 6.

    Thus far, Lucic is tied for eighth for the Bruins with just 12 shots in the series. By contrast, Seguin has doubled that total with 24.

    It would certainly appear that Lucic needs to increase his shot total in Game 7 to give Boston the best chance to succeed.

    It is a simple concept, but one that teams and players often forget: shoot the puck, and good things are bound to happen.

    If Milan Lucic can finally break through in Game 7, the Bruins should advance to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

3. Jason Chimera

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    After having somewhat of a breakout regular season for the Capitals, Jason Chimera has been rather disappointing in this series against Boston so far.

    During the regular season, Chimera was third on the team with 20 goals.

    In this series with the Bruins, though, he has only one goal, no assists and just a single point.

    He does have a plus-one rating, and there is no denying his physical presence in this series. That was particularly evident in Game 5 when he threw an elbow to the head of Zdeno Chara that kept the big man face down on the ice for a few seconds.

    For the Caps, an encouraging sign is that Chimera has been getting better as the series has moved on. 

    His play in Game 6—when he may have gotten away with a bit of a shoulder to the face of Brad Marchand, raced down ice and then basically got a tap-in goal off a perfect feed from Nicklas Backstrom—shows exactly what Chimera is capable of and what the Caps will need from him in Game 7 if they want to pull off this upset.

    Similar to Milan Lucic, Chimera needs to think about shooting the puck more in Game 7. Chimera ranks 14th for the Capitals with only eight shots in the series.

    This might be the result of him not being on the ice as much as he should be, as he is only averaging a little more than 12 minutes of ice time per game.

    Chimera has toughness, sneaky speed and all the ability to be a difference maker in Game 7.

    If the Capitals are going to win Wednesday night, coach Dale Hunter might want to figure out a way to get No. 25 on the ice a bit more.

4. Brad Marchand

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    Brad Marchand has been a real spark plug for the Bruins in this series energy-wise.

    He has been all over the ice, making plays, delivering hits, getting in the middle of everything, going hard to the net and, in general, trying to disrupt everything the Capitals do.

    Yet for all his hard work, he only has one goal and one assist to show for it. On top of that, he has a minus-one rating for the series, and he was on the wrong end of Jason Chimera's shoulder on that play late in the second period of Game 6 that enabled Chimera to score the tying goal.

    Whether that was a dive or not does not change the fact that Marchand was not able to be a part of the play, and it cost the Bruins.

    The effort has certainly been there for Marchand. He is shooting the puck enough, as he has put it on net 15 times so far.

    He could perhaps stand to be on the ice a bit more, as he is averaging a little over 18 minutes of ice time per game. That is good for ninth on the team, but he is still on the ice a few seconds more than Tyler Seguin, so that might very well be a non-issue.

    Nevertheless, Marchand was second for the Bruins in goals scored during the regular season with 28, and you get the feeling that with many of the other Bruins starting to click, we might see some more production out of No. 63.

    That was finally the case in Game 5 when Marchand scored a goal and an assist.

    But he disappeared again in Game 6.

    Now, with the health of Patrice Bergeron in question, it will be all hands on deck for Boston, and a big gun like Marchand has to be ready to answer the bell.

    It is no coincidence either that I believe Marchand and Chimera may hold the key to victory for their respective teams. They have been on the ice at the same time numerous times and have, quite obviously, been quite physical with each other on occasion.

    In a series that has been decided by countless little matchups weaving in and out of bigger battles, this under-the-radar showdown between Marchand and Chimera might end up being the biggest one of the entire series.

5. Braden Holtby

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    What more can you say about the heroic performance of the Capitals rookie netminder?

    When the series started, most everyone hoped that Braden Holtby could keep the games competitive enough to give Washington a chance to steal a win or two.

    No one could have imagined that Holtby would actually outplay Tim Thomas and give the Capitals a chance to win the series.

    But that is what has happened for the most part. Holtby has single-handedly saved the Caps on numerous occasions in this series, and he has shown remarkable poise for a rookie.

    He will need to be at his absolute best in Game 7.

    The thing about Holtby is that he seems to thrive in these high-pressure situations, and every time the Caps have been truly tested in this series, Holtby has answered the call.

    His stats through six games are very impressive. He has faced 216 shots and stopped 202 of them for a .935 save percentage and a 2.18 goals-against average.

    By comparison, Thomas has only faced 180 shots and has stopped 166 of them for a .922 save percentage and a similar 2.18 goals-against average.

    So, statistically speaking, Holtby has been just as good, if not better than, the reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe-winning goalie for the Bruins.

    Beyond that, though, Holtby has, at times, seemed to get in the heads of the Bruins. This has forced the Bruins out of their game on occasion, and that has been a big advantage for Washington.

    The pressure on this rookie will be immense tomorrow night. If Braden Holtby can meet the challenge one more time, the Washington Capitals have a great chance at winning Game 7.

6. Tim Thomas

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    It stands to reason that if the Capitals goalie is one of the players that has to shine, the Bruins goalie must do so as well.

    For Tim Thomas, Game 7 will almost feel like coming home.

    He thrived in that pressure cooker a year ago and played his absolute best when the stakes were at their absolute highest.

    Last year, Thomas played in a Game 7 three different times.

    He recorded shutouts in two of those games, including the Stanley Cup-winning Game 7 in Vancouver.

    If the Capitals are hoping Thomas won't show up for Game 7, they need to think again.

    As mentioned in the slide on Braden Holtby, the Caps rookie goalie has outplayed Thomas a bit in this series, to the surprise of many.

    And, yes, Thomas has not looked as sharp as he did a year ago. This was particularly true on the soft game-winner he gave up to Troy Brouwer at the end of Game 5.

    But Thomas more than made up for that numerous times in Game 6 when he was under probably the most concerted and sustained attack by the Caps in the entire series.

    His diving stop on Marcus Johansson to prevent a sure goal in Game 6 was every bit as good as anything we have ever seen from Thomas.

    For the Bruins faithful, they know what they will get from Tim Thomas—a top notch performance that will give the Bruins the best possible chance to win Game 7 and advance to the next round.

    If Thomas falters, though, a huge upset could be brewing.

    My gut instinct is that both goalies will be at their best. Game 7 might look a whole lot like Game 1.

    One goal might be all it takes—and all either team can get.