There is nothing in sports that matches the drama, intrigue and emotion of a game seven.
Tonight, in front of what is sure to be a raucous, deafening and red-clad crowd at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will conclude one of the most compelling series in NHL history.
Hockey fans couldn’t ask for more.
This series has been a beautiful symphony of symmetry, and seemed destined to go the distance even before it started.
The three best players in the world, Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, took center stage in this second round matchup, and the three have kept the NHL universe on the edge of their seats with outstanding play.
"I was telling a couple of people after the game, this is so good for our game, when the best players can shine on a bright stage like this. I just wish it was for the Cup," Washington Head Coach, Bruce Boudreau, said after the Capitals game six overtime win.
The moment that Washingtondefeated the New York Rangers in game seven of their first round matchup, the hockey world started buzzing about a potential second round matchup featuring Crosby and Ovechkin.
Their disdain for one another has blossomed into a glorious display of can-you-top-this, with each player having one of the single greatest individual performances in postseason history.
Becoming only the fifth pair of opposing players to record hat tricks in the same game (game two), Sid the Kid and Alex the Great have dazzled the world with their entertaining game of one-upmanship.
Let’s start with Ovechkin.
If not for the Capital’s young Russian phenom, this series would have ended many moons ago. Ovechkin, who has led Washington past the first round for the first time since their Cup run of 2007-’08, has factored in on 13 of Washington’s 20 goals in this series.
Just in case that last tidbit escaped you…
Ovechkin has factored in on 13 of Washington’s 20 goals…that’s 65 percent of the Capital’s production.
Alex the Great has been the star of this series with seven goals and six assists. Ovie has a point in every game of this series, and leads the NHL postseason with 20 points; 10 goals and 10 assists.
Ovechkin is sure to wind up being the greatest goal-scorer of this generation, and has shown in this series why he may mature into one of the greatest of all-time.
Ovechkin has thrown an array of scintillating slap-shots and wicked wrist-shots past Penguin’s goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. He has constantly found himself in position to score, and has put himself in position to score when opportunity seemed to non-existent.
As for his Canadian counterpart?
Crosby has done a great job of answering the call for his Penguins, and has shown why he is every bit as good as Ovechkin.
Crosby has answered Ovechkin’s 13 points with 10 of his own, six goals and four assists, and is second in the NHL postseason points race with 18.
What has really stuck out about Crosby in this series has been his unrelenting determination to will his team to victory.
For those of us that watched game six, just watching Crosby in the third period gave everyone the feeling that he was destined to score the tying goal. Every shift was carried out maximum intensity, and Crosbywas rewarded when he finally punched one past Simeon Varlamov to tie the game and force overtime.
These two superstars have not only added to their individual legacies in this series, they have intricately constructed a fierce rivalry that has been amplified by their performances in said series.
While this has been mostly a two-horse show, there have been several other compelling components to this dream series.
One of the biggest stories has been the disappearance of the Art Ross Trophy winner Evgeni Malkin.
After leading the regular season in points, getting nominated for the Hart Trophy and having a stellar a first round series against the Flyers, Malkin has been a shell of the player he has been all year in this series.
Malkin has registered eight points in this series, and currently sits third in the postseason points race with 17, but his numbers don’t tell the true story.
Geno has come on strong in the past two games, tallying five points, but has been virtually non-existent excluding a standout performance in game three. Malkin has struggled to find his mark, and seemingly comes on for a shift, gets off and repeats.
The first that was there in game three has been somewhat absent, and if Pittsburgh is to have any chance in game seven they are going to need a big effort from their star Russian.
The goaltending, previously thought to be the Achilles Heel of the Capitals, has been anything but that.
Simeon Varlamov is doing things that were previously thought to be unfathomable for a player with his limited experience, and Marc-Andre Fleury is doing things that were considered unthinkable for player with his kind of pedigree.
Varlamov has been berated with a barrage of shots from the Penguins; Pittsburghhas thrown more than 35 shots at Varlamov in five of the six games of this series so far, and maybe twice as many quality scoring chances.
Varlamov has been unrattled in the face of Pittsburgh’s aggressive onslaught, and he has shown the poise of a hall of fame goaltender in turning away 205 of 226 shots; the Penguins are averaging just under 38 shots per game.
In fact, the only time Varlamov looked human was in a game four loss, but hey…even the best have an off night.
The goaltending that the Capitals have received is the single reason they have made it this far, and are in a position to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
If Washington is to advance tonight, how many of us will go back to his remarkable save in game one on Sidney Crosby?
The Washington goaltender set an NHL record this playoff by winning the first four elimination games of his career, and that is a stat that doesn’t bode well for Pittsburgh.
Another thing that is hinting at impending doom for the Penguins has been the subpar play of their goaltender, a former number one overall pick and Stanley Cup experienced netminder.
Fleury has been a disappointment in this series after he pulled…well…a Varlamov in stealing the Pens first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers.
The “Snowman” has stopped a meager 139 of 159 shots, and has been the whipping boy of Alexander Ovechkin in this series.
Fleury’s save percentage of 87.4 is eons from Varlamov’s 90.7, and while the Penguins offense has certainly showed up, they seem to have left their goaltender in the first round.
So much for Pittsburgh having the decisive edge in net.
Another discrepancy that has been jumping out at anyone that has watched has been the lopsidedness of power-play opportunities.
Washington, who has played more disciplined hockey as of late, has yielded 30 power-play chances to the Penguins; Pittsburgh has only converted on seven.
The Penguins, on the other hand, have only surrendered 19 power-play opportunities to the Capitals, and Washington has converted on five.
Washington is converting at a better rate than Pittsburgh, and the Penguin’s futility on the power-play has been one of the primary reasons that they have not put this series away.
Pittsburgh had a 5-on-3 opportunity for just over 90 seconds in game six, and they were unable to convert and bury Washington early. The Pens had another opportunity in the final minutes of regulation, but faltered yet again.
Another reason that will be critiqued and broken down based on the outcome of tonight’s game has been the secondary scoring.
One of the few areas that Pittsburgh has excelled, it has been Washington that has failed to get production from anyone other than their top gun.
While Evgeni Malkin has been conspicuous by his absence, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Sergei Federov and a host of other players who contributed for the Capitals all season have abandon them for the majority of this series.
It wasn’t until game six that Washington got some semblance of production from someone not named Ovechkin, and it has been the third line for the Penguins that has kept them afloat in this series.
Jordan Staal, Ruslan Fedotenko, Max Talbot, Matt Cooke and Billy Guerin have all contributed for the Penguins, and getting production from players who are not your stars is essential for any team hoping to make a deep playoff run.
As I stated in the beginning, this has been a beautiful symphony of symmetry.
For everything that Alexander Ovechkin has done, Sidney Crosby has had an answer.
Whereas Evgeni Malkin has been but a mere fly on the wall, Alexander Semin has failed to step up as well; granted both have had their moments.
Pittsburgh, once thought to have the decisive edge in goaltending with Marc-Andre Fleury, has watched a 21-year old rookie outplay their veteran netminder and establish himself as the franchise in Washington.
For every bit of futility that the Penguins power-play has shown, it has been their third line that has proved to be the difference.
Where Washington’s third line has faltered, it has been their ability to convert on power-play opportunities that has shifted the course of this series.
For every lucky bounce in overtime that Pittsburgh has received, Washington not only got one back, but got a save for the ages that altered this series from the very get-go.
Six games have been decided by a total of seven goals, with three games going to overtime.
The team that has scored first has lost five of six times, and each team has exchanged wins on the road after winning the first two in their own building.
Washington had to come back from a 3-1 series hole to defeat the Rangers, and are facing elimination at the hands of the Penguins for the seventh time in eight series.
The Capitals have blown series leads to the Penguins in 1992, ’95 and ’96, and may be on the cusp of doing it again.
The Penguins, on the other hand, lost a series clinching game on home-ice to the Flyers in round one, fell behind 3-0 in the next game and came back to win and clinch the series on the road.
After losing a series clinching game on home-ice in game six, the Penguins will try to shut-out the Capitals on their home-ice in game seven.
"There was a lot of talk before the series. It's everything it was made up to be," Crosby said. "Let's just say we're all not surprised that it's going seven."
And none of us are surprised it’s going seven either…nor are we disappointed.
Keys to Victory
Washingtonis going to need another outstanding performance from Simeon Varlamov. The young netminder has yet to waver in the face of adversity, and I wouldn’t expect him to on this stage either.
Winning the first four elimination games of his career has shown the poise he can exhibit in the face of pressure, and he has become accustomed to turning away 35 plus pucks a night.
Washington will need to continue to capitalize on any penalties, as the refs will be more inclined to let the boys play in this game. The officiating crew is not going to want to be the ones who decide this game.
Just like in game six, the Capitals will need their other players to step up and help Ovechkin.
Alex the Great has become someone that you don’t stop, you only hope you can contain. He is sure to get his points, but he won’t be able to do it all on his own.
This game will be a defining moment for players such as Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. Secondary production is the most important thing for Washingtontonight, and if they get it, they should be able to capitalize…no pun intended…on a weak series that has been posted by Fleury.
The Penguins are going to need Marc-Andre Fleury to return to his Stanley Cup form. The emotion in the Verizon Center, as well as the noise, is sure to be off the charts, and Fleury should expect a barrage of shots early.
If Pittsburghcan weather the initial surge, and score the games first goal, they should be able to take the crowd out of it early and give themselves a chance to get in the head of Varlamov.
Pittsburgh is going to need to stay on the offensive and be aggressive on both ends.
For those of us that have been watching, pay attention to how quickly Washington attacks the puck in the defensive zone, and how laid back Pittsburgh appears. It almost looks as if Washington is on a permanent power-play every time they step into the Pittsburgh zone.
The Penguins are going to also need their power-play to step up and win a game for them. It has been a disappointment for the entire postseason and they will need to capitalize…there’s that word again…on any opportunity they are given.
Evgeni Malkin is going to need to replicate his game three performance, and put this team on his back. This could be a statement game for the young superstar, and he could signal to the world that he has arrived and is every bit as good as Crosby and Ovechkin.
Player to Watch – Evgeni Malkin
This could go down as the defining moment in Malkin’s career.
Crosby and Ovechkin have been canceling each other out for this entire series, and the secondary superstars on each team have failed to make an impact.
Malkin showed all year that he is a force on the ice, and can be a leader for the Penguins.
He needs to take note of what Crosby has done and elevate his game. If he steps-up, and doesn’t take a shift off, Pittsburgh will have the edge.
Semin, Backstrom, Green are all great players, but Washington does not have an answer for an on-the-ball Malkin.
If Malkin plays like he is capable, the game is Pittsburgh’s to lose.