Most NHL, NBA or MLB teams would be happy to play a Game 7 at home.
And then there are the Caps, who put themselves in the predicament of having to win Game 7 Monday at Verizon Center by losing Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals 1-0 to the Rangers Sunday in New York.
Incredible as it may seem, Washington is 2-6 in seventh games on home ice (compared to 1-2 on the road). And don’t think that embarrassing record is some leftover from the bygone days in the dark and long-destroyed Capital Centre.
While the Caps fell in seventh games in Landover under the coaching Murray brothers to the New York Islanders (in quadruple overtime in 1987), New Jersey (by a goal 1988) and Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh (by two in 1992), they also upended Philadelphia on Dale Hunter’s unforgettable series-winning goal in 1988.
Today’s Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Mike Green Caps have posted a similarly disappointing mark in seventh games at Verizon Center. Washington lost to the Flyers on Joffrey Lupul’s overtime score in 2008, were crushed 6-2 by the Penguins in 2009, and completed a choke against Montreal with a 2-1 loss to the eighth-seeded Canadiens and Jaroslav Halak in 2010.
That’s an ignominious season-ending defeat on home ice three years running. Yes, those were the run-and-gun Caps of coach Bruce Boudreau, and yes, Washington did finish off a superb comeback against New York by beating the visiting Rangers 2-1 in Game 7 in 2009 on a goal by Hall of Famer Sergei Fedorov. But losing a Game 7 at home three straight years? Who does that?
Dig a little deeper and history says that after Sunday’s defeat, Ovi and the boys have had 10 chances to clinch a series during the last six springs and have come through just three times. That’s hardly the stuff of champions as the Caps prepare for their latest Game 7.
Of course, what really has to concern rookie coach Adam Oates isn’t history, but what has happened to his team since it led the series 2-0.
Start with the Rangers’ ability to eliminate NHL goal-scoring leader Ovechkin from the scoresheet. Ovechkin hasn’t scored a point in four consecutive games, equaling his total during Washington’s final 23 regular season contests. The two-time Hart Trophy (MVP) winner hadn’t experienced such an extended drought since Nov. 12-19, 2011, the start of the final fortnight of the Boudreau era. So for all his dislike for Hunter and his appreciation of Oates, the Russian superstar never put up four straight zeroes under the defensive-minded coach.
And for those wondering if the old ‘as Ovi goes, so go the Caps’ theory still applies, check out these numbers: Washington is 20-5 when Ovechkin puts a puck in the net, 10-19 when he doesn’t; 25-9 when he scores a point, 5-15 when he doesn’t.
Then there’s the whopping imbalance in power plays. Sure, some of the calls and non-calls have been questionable, but the fact remains that New York has had nearly twice as many chances with the extra skater, 26-14. After being awarded all five opportunities Sunday, the Rangers had 19 power plays to just seven for the Caps in the past four games. Incredibly, Washington still has a 3-2 edge in power-play goals thanks to superb penalty killing, but Oates’ team can’t risk taking so much ice time away from Ovechkin and its other top scoring threats in Game 7.
The bottom line is that the Rangers are going to arrive on F Street brimming with confidence from having won three of the last four games behind standout goalie Henrik Lundqvist while shutting down Ovechkin.
And given that 12 of the previous 13 playoff games between these teams the past two years have been decided by a goal, another nail-biter figures to be in store Monday.
Washington’s forwards have to be smarter and more aggressive in Game 7, relying on the defensemen and goalie Braden Holtby to control the Rangers’ offense while taking every opportunity to throw pucks at Lundqvist.
If Oveckin’s bottled up, his linemates, Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, have to take more shots, make Lundqvist work a lot harder than he did in Game 6. That’s also true of second-liners Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro, the overtime hero of Game 5 just three nights ago at Verizon Center.
The Caps might still lose that way, but at least they’ll go down swinging which is what this post-Hunter season was all about until they managed just two goals during the past two games.
One final note: Washington is 3-0 on home ice in this series. It has never won all four home games in a playoff matchup. Do the Caps make history tonight or repeat it?
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.