ARLINGTON, V.A. — Alex Ovechkin was wearing his usual interview garb following this morning’s skate when he greeted media at the Capitals’ practice rink: A dry-fit shirt and red underwear.
And though his game-day outfit was the same, No. 8 admits there’s something a little different about today.
“Yeah, probably,” Ovechkin replied, when asked if tonight’s Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final is the biggest of his career. “It’s two steps and you’re in the Stanley Cup Final.”
Yes, two wins away for these Capitals, while the Tampa Bay Lightning need just one, carrying the 3-2 series lead. The winner of this series, of course, takes on the Vegas Golden Knights, a scenario everyone obviously predicted for the NHL expansion team in Year 1.
But back to the East. The puck drops a little after 8 p.m. ET, so to get you ready, here’s our Sportsnet notebook ahead of the last or second-last game before the Stanley Cup Final.
The future opponent
The hot topic at both team’s morning skates was the opponent coming out of the west, those Knights from the desert who dusted the Winnipeg Jets in five games in the Western Conference Final.
“Well, yeah, I’m really worried about us, but it’s a great story,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “They did a great job, they’ve been galvanized as a group. There’s nothing tighter than that first-year group because there’s no pre-conceived notion. Leadership’s not in place, nobody knows where to live, all those things are galvanizing.
“Unfortunately, there was tragedy in Vegas which probably galvanized them more. And they’re deep. They’re probably the most veteran team still playing in the playoffs…It’s a great story, not only for our game, but for everybody. Congratulations to them. Hopefully we can see them.”
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper figured out the key to Vegas’ quick success, too. “I’ll tell you how it happened,” he said. “They got an owner that hired an unreal GM and they got an unreal GM that hired an unreal coach. They were all left to do their jobs. They were given a framework to work with… This is a success story, is what it is. It’s not a Cinderella story. I know the gentlemen well that are involved, the GM and coach, and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys, of the job they’ve done. They deserved to get there, and I only hope we’re the team they get to play.”
And if you’re not enjoying watching this Knights success story, give your head a shake, says Capitals defender, Brooks Orpik.
“If you’re jealous looking at them, that’s [your] own issue,” he said. “How can you not be happy for them? They’re fun to watch.”
Red hot start
After a really slow start in Game 5 that saw Capitals head coach Barry Trotz wonder whether his team thought the game began at 8pm instead of its scheduled time of 7:15 (he was joking), the Capitals all agree that their first few minutes need to be dynamite in Game 6.
“Our starts need to be better at home,” forward Jay Beagle said. “We have to come out and dictate the game. Sometimes, as the home team, you kind of sit back. You don’t mean to, but all of a sudden you’re kind of waiting to see what they’re going to bring as the road team. We have to go forward, go after them and play our game right away and dictate the pace.”
“It’s just building off the first shift,” Trotz added. “Just all the right focus, good energy, keeping it simple and quick real early, like most teams do, and try to build off that.”
Gritty, grindy adjustments
After dropping Games 1 and 2 at home and giving up a ton of odd-man rushes, the Lightning came into No. 3 with a new approach, and then they won three straight. “What I do like about what’s happened is the guys, they’ve changed the game,” Cooper said. “They’ve made a conscious effort to do the things we need to win.”
Beagle says Washington has to counter Tampa Bay’s response. “You saw in Game 1 and 2 they came really aggressive with their D pinching. They didn’t really have that responsible F3 they have now. They’ve made adjustments, where F3 is now pushing the guy on the wall,” he said. “They’re giving up a lot less odd-man rushes. That means we have to get pucks deep and we have to get some gritty, grindy goals.”
Yes, gritty and grindy.
The McDonagh effect
The Lightning acquired veteran defender Ryan McDonagh back in February, and Cooper had some high praise for the newest presence on Tampa’s blue line.
Cooper called him a “monster in his own end,” commented on McDonagh’s minute-munching, penalty-killing abilities and his skating. “He’s made us a better defending team I guess is the best way I can put it,” Cooper said. “You’d have to sit here and say the guy we rely on the most to, whether it’s hold the lead or what have you, he’s probably been the guy that’s come in and cemented that for us. And those guys are hard to find.”
The biggest, for sure
T.J. Oshie is on a long list of Capitals who haven’t been to a Stanley Cup Final, along with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov and Braden Holtby. So there’s no doubt in Oshie’s mind that this is the biggest game he’s ever been a part of.
“Yeah, I don’t see how it couldn’t be,” Oshie said. “Tonight is the most important game and we’ve got the maturity and excitement in here to embrace that feeling and have some fun with it.”
The Capitals can’t wait to get going, either.
“I think all playoffs, especially this series, it’s been taking too long to get to the puck drop,” Oshie said. “I think ever since the end of Game 5, we’ve been ready to go. We want this game to happen. We want to get out there. We want to prove to ourselves that we’ve got what it takes to get to the next level.”
It’s going to be pretty simple tonight.
“You just have to impart to your team this is the night,” Cooper said. “Game 7’s not an option. It’s Game 6 and let’s end it and you have to have that attitude.”
Home ice disadvantage
Tampa became the first team in this series to win at home, in Game 5, and obviously that’s what the Capitals need to do to stay alive. The last time the Capitals won a home game in the Eastern Conference Final was 20 years ago.
“Well,” Ovechkin said, “tonight is the night.”