Game 7: Five keys for Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Washington Capitals

The Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals play Game 7 of their Eastern Conference second-round series at 7:30 p.m. ET at Verizon Center. The Capitals roared back from a 3-1 series deficit to knot things up with a 5-2 thumping of the Penguins on Monday night.

Who advances to face the Ottawa Senators? Here are the five keys to Game 7.

1 – Capitals’ Mindset

After failing to win Game 4, where the Penguins were without Sidney Crosby, the Capitals said they just started playing like they had nothing to lose.

“The problem that we were having is we were trying to play what everyone thought was playoff hockey, and we weren’t playing good,” said defenseman Karl Alzner. “We need to just continue to play the way that we know we play well, and that’s by staying loose and not worrying about it. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, and we’re OK, we can handle either consequence.”

The question for the Capitals headed into Game 7: Can they maintain that mindset when they’re one win away from advancing farther than any Capitals team in the Alex Ovechkin era has advanced? As well as doing it against their most hated rival, and a team that eliminated them in a Game 7 back in 2009?

2 – Sid, Geno, Phil and Marc-Andre

Coach Mike Sullivan reiterated that the Penguins have to play a strong team game against the Capitals, but noted that their star players also have to pick their spots.

“We’ve had success through our teamwork and our cooperative effort and we just happen to have some guys that can be difference makers. When those opportunities present themselves, those guys can act on their instincts and that’s what separates them from others. I think our players are well aware of this, they’ve been through this experience in the past, they have those experiences to draw on, and I know that those experiences will serve them well,” he said.

Malkin has a goal and an assist in the last two games, while Crosby (1 assist) and Kessel (1 goal) have also hit the scoresheet. But can any of them put together the kind of multi-point performance that can win a Game 7?

(Of the three, our money is on Malkin.)

As for Fleury, who hasn’t been sharp in the last two losses, things just got interesting with injured starting goalie Matt Murray returning to practice. Is that an insurance policy that gets cashed in in Fleury struggles?

3 – Penguins’ Zone Time

The Penguins have been dominated in puck possession by the Capitals lately. Earlier in the series, Pittsburgh was able counterpunch effectively with its speed and with smart zone entries. Not so much in Game 6.

So they spent two days working on it.

“We’re not putting it in with a purpose. We’re getting isolated pressure as opposed to cooperative pressure. We’ve gotta do a better job with how we manage the puck coming through the neutral zone,” said Sullivan.

Braden Holtby has been quite good for the Capitals lately, but he could be tested a bit more with sustained pressure. Whether the Penguins can earn it will be essential to winning Game 7.

4 – Capitals’ Puck Possession (And What They Do With It)

Not only are the Capitals dominating in puck possession, but they’re being smarter with the puck when they do possess it. After Game 4, Washington figured out that it was all about quality over quantity when it comes to solving Marc-Andre Fleury.

Here, let Alzner explain it:

“You know everyone always says there’s no bad shots in the playoffs? Sometimes there are bad shots. And we have the skill and patience on this team to wait for good opportunities, but it’s hard sometimes when you have something set in your mind, and you hear people yelling ‘shoot,’ and all that kind of stuff, you think, maybe I should be shooting more. Maybe if we just direct 100 pucks at the net 10 of them are going to go in. And that’s not necessarily the case. We’ve just kind of, I don’t know, had more fun and enjoyed handling the puck a little bit more, and when guys are touching the puck they seem to get a little more mojo going,” he said.

“We kept seeing all these saves the goalie was making, all these blocked shots they were having, and everybody was talking about how great they were at blocking shots, and we’re thinking to ourselves, what do we need to do to change that? And you look at some of the games we’ve played this year, which were our better games, they weren’t necessarily the games where we got 40 shots on net. They were the games where we handled the puck for probably 70 percent of it. So we kind of thought about that, and tried to make adjustments.”

So it’s like that.

5 – The Weirdness of Game 7

So is the past the prologue for this game?

Is the Capitals’ disastrous record in Game 7s something to consider? They’re 4-10 in franchise history in Game 7s, including 3-7 on home ice. The Penguins are 3-0 in franchise history in Game 7 against the Capitals, including a 2009 victory.

Is Justin Williams’s history in Game 7s going to carry over? He has 14 points and is 7-0 in Game 7s.

The thing about the Capitals – and this reputation is earned – is that they find new and exciting ways to fail in the postseason.

Their fans anticipate disaster. It’s in their DNA. I remember being at a Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008 and feeling the palpable tension that something was going to go wrong, well before Joffrey Lupul’s OT game winner. This was the first playoff appearance for Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and these new Capitals. But the weight of previous playoff failures was placed on them by the tightening sphincters in the crowd. And it’s remained on them for years. The Caps feed off the energy of the crowd, and when that energy is impending doom, they consume that too.

This is either going to be a party for the ages or a funeral for this group of Capitals.

As usual with Washington in the postseason, there’s no middle ground.

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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