The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will face each other tonight in a Game 7 showdown that seemed exceedingly unlikely just a few days ago. Through four games, it looked like Pittsburgh had all but wrapped up a trip to the conference final. But after seeing Washington play it’s two best games of the series in a pair of must-wins, who knows what’s going to happen tonight?
I do. I know what’s going to happen.
It’s not actually all that hard to figure out. Tonight’s winner is pretty obvious if you know the five key factors to look for. So today, let’s list those five factors, and why they add up to a sure thing.
(Note to editors: I actually have no earthly idea who’s going to win tonight. So I came up with five good reasons for each team; I’m thinking you can just “accidentally” hold off publishing this until after the game, then delete all the ones that turn out to be wrong. It’s all pretty foolproof, just as long as nobody screws up and posts the whole thing during the day.)
Here are the five reasons why tonight’s winner is an easy call. Spoiler alert: Don’t read any further if you want to be surprised!
The Penguins will win because: They know how to close.
You’re going to hear a lot about Justin Williams in the lead-up to Wednesday night. He’s Mr. Game 7, after all, with a track record of coming through in the clutch.
That’s nice that the Capitals have one guy who fits that description. The problem is that the Penguins have a roster full of them.
These are the defending Stanley Cup champs we’re talking about. Several key guys have two rings. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and others have won a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup final. The franchise is 5-0 in Game 7s on the road, including a win in Washington. They’re not going to wilt here.
The Capitals, on the other hand… well, we’ll get to that in a bit. But it’s fair to say that when it comes to knowing how to win, this one is no contest. One team has been talking about getting over the hump for the better part of a decade. The other actually goes out and does it. When in doubt, go with the team that’s been there before.
The Capitals will win because: They’re dominating right now.
History lessons about past Pittsburgh glory are nice and all, but we’re worried about right now. And right now, the Capitals are kicking the Penguins’ butts all over the rink.
That was largely true even early in the series, when the Pens were getting wins and everyone was ready to write the Capitals off. Washington wasn’t playing perfect hockey by any stretch, but they were playing well enough to deserve a better fate. The Caps have outshot the Penguins by a lopsided 200–133 count so far in the series. They’ve also dominated possession, and had more scoring chances.
Early in the series, they ran into a hot goalie and some tough bounces, and probably deserved a better fate. But that sort of thing can start to even out over a long series, and that’s what we’ve seen over the last two games.
Right now, there’s really no question over who’s the better team. It’s been Washington all along, and the gap is only getting wider as the series goes on.
The Penguins will win because: They still haven’t had their best game yet.
So the Capitals have played well, even dominating for stretches. There’s a flip side to that: Even without pulling out the kind of performance they’re capable of, the Penguins have still been good enough to get to Game 7. What happens when they finally click?
The Penguins haven’t had a game yet with more than 30 shots on goal, and they’ve held the Caps to less than 30 just once. They haven’t scored more than one power play goal in a game. Neither Crosby or Malkin has had that night where they take over, and outside of game two, Phil Kessel has been mostly quiet. There are plenty of areas where the Pens should be better. If they are tonight, they probably win.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it will happen. But it’s telling that they’ve been struggling to find their top gear for six games now, and they’re still just one win away from advancing. Even with the Penguins looking out of sorts, the Capitals have been life-and-death to stay in the series.
Remember, these are the defending champs we’re talking about — and winners have a way of keeping a little something in the tank until it’s time to rise to the moment. If Crosby and friends can find that next level tonight, then this one may not be close.
The Capitals will win because: They have all the momentum.
The Penguins seemed like they had the Capitals on the ropes after taking a 3–1 series lead. But they let them slip away, and now everything is going Washington’s way. They’ve played their two best games of the series when they needed them most, and now the Penguins seem lost. Fleury is struggling, Braden Holtby finally looks like his old self, the Penguins’ big guns have gone quiet and the Capitals’ stars are playing well.
For most of the last two games, the ice has looked titled out there, and all the important trends are pointing in the same direction: another Washington win.
The Penguins will win because: Momentum means nothing in this year’s playoffs.
There’s a case to be made that momentum doesn’t mean much, period, at least compared to how much we typically think it does. But whichever side of that debate you fall on, there’s little question that this year, momentum has been the last thing you want.
Look at the Oilers, who suffered the most devastating loss of the post-season in Friday’s collapse at Anaheim, then came back for a blowout win on Sunday. They also followed a 7–0 loss with a pair of wins in round one. The Capitals seemed like they were in trouble after two straight overtime losses to the Leafs, then won three straight to wrap up the series. The Rangers and Senators have traded momentum all series long. The list goes on.
Or just look at this series — if momentum mattered, it would have been over after the Penguins won Game 4. But momentum doesn’t mean anything, at least not this year. As soon as a team starts looking like the favourite, they collapse. If it happens again, the Penguins will be skating home with a Game 7 win.
The Capitals will win because: They’re healthier.
Sure, everyone is banged up at this time of year. But heading into Game 7, the Capitals have all hands on deck. They got a scare on Monday when Evgeny Kuznetsov left with what initially appeared to be a serious arm or shoulder injury, but he returned to finish the game, and right now their injury report is empty.
Compare that to the Penguins, who are still missing their No. 1 goaltender and their best defenceman. And that’s before we even get to Crosby, who we’re told is fully recovered from his latest concussion but who seemed to take a pounding in Game 6. Mix in Trevor Daley being questionable, and the Penguins are in rough shape.
At full strength, maybe these two teams are an even matchup. But right now, one of them is nowhere near full strength. That’s why the other one will probably win.
The Penguins will win because: We’re forgetting how close this series was to being over.
In the playoffs, recency bias tends to kick in, and we forget about everything other than the last game or two. So here’s a reminder: The Penguins were one overtime away from sweeping this series. Surely we all remember that — it was just a few days ago we were all ready to trade Alex Ovechkin and start all over in Washington. Even without Matt Murray and Kris Letang; even with Crosby missing time; and even with the Capitals throwing everything they had at them, Pittsburgh came within one measly goal of ending this series in four straight.
Sure, they looked shaky over the last two games, and that’s cause for some concern. But this series has given us six games to go on, not just two. And in that bigger picture, the Penguins have been fine. They’ll be fine again in Game 7.
The Capitals will win because: The Penguins missed their chance.
It’s true that the Penguins came close to ending this series in four games. It’s not hard to see why — their goaltender was standing on his head, the bounces were all going their way, and the Capitals just couldn’t find their groove. But all of that has changed over the last two games, and this feels like a different series now.
In the playoffs, sometimes it’s all about taking advantage of your opportunities. The Penguins had a golden one early in this series when everything was going their way. But they let the Capitals up off the mat, and it’s going to cost them.
The Penguins will win because: It’s the Capitals.
Come on. It’s the Washington Capitals playing a crucial playoff game. Are you really confused about how this is going to turn out? Is this your first day here?
The Caps have racked up over three decades worth of post-season failure, often in the most agonizing way possible. We’ve seen this too many times to expect anything else. Thinking that a Capitals playoff run is going to end without an epic collapse is like settling in to watch the latest sequel to The Fast and The Furious and thinking there won’t be any car chases.
And if you don’t believe me, ask a Capitals fan. The rest of the hockey world might be ready to punch Washington’s ticket through to the next round, but no true Caps fan feels good about this game. This team gets your hopes up, then destroys them. It’s what they do.
The Capitals will win because: Nothing makes sense anymore so they might as well.
Sure, in theory there’s no way the Capitals win this one. They’re the master of blowing two-game playoff leads; there’s no way they come back from one. And they certainly don’t do it against the Penguins, the team that’s been kicking sand in their face for decades now.
But look at what’s happened in the sports world over the last 12 months. The Chicago Cubs won the World Series. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the reigning NBA champs. Leicester City won the Premier League. Sergio Garcia won a major. Even Oilers and Maple Leafs fans are mostly happy these days. Nothing makes sense. As sports fans, we’re all living in the upside down.
So of course the Capitals are going to win the Stanley Cup. Of course they’re going to do it by beating their arch-rivals along the way. And of course they’re going to do it by handing their opponents the kind of gut-wrenching collapse that they themselves are famous for.
This is the year of the unexpected in the sports world, and nothing is more unexpected than the Washington Capitals coming though under pressure. That’s why it has to happen. We may as well enjoy it.