The statistics and history are out there. If Game 6 plays according to historical precedent, there will be a Game 7. In fact, because of historical precedent, the Capitals wouldn’t even show up, knowing all hope is lost. Sarcasm aside, the Game 6 result will have nothing to do with history. It will have everything to do with several key factors which have decided the first five games of the series. Whichever team exploits those advantages, will win the game. The 2009 game, as well as the 2017 battle, are now as irrelevant as the music of 1991.
Popular opinion is spreading around the interwebs and social media, the Penguins must win a low scoring game by playing a conservative defensive style.
No. A leopard cannot change its spots and the Penguins cannot win by restricting players like Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel. In fact, they attempt would have more adverse consequences than positives. The Penguins do not play well on their heels and trying to do so would be a recipe to hit the golf course while the Capitals move on to the Eastern Conference Final.
So, let’s dispel the notion of clogging the neutral zone to win, too. The Penguins tried that in Game 5 after they established a one-goal lead. Oops.
The Penguins win Game 6 by doing much of what they did in Games 4 and 5 when they were aggressive.
The Penguins low-to-high passing game, which frees the defenseman at the top of the zone to shoot was taken away early in the series. The Capitals jumped the wall to cut off the pass and the Penguins turned the puck over in the corners.
The Penguins began to play with the puck down low and defensemen pinched to create pressure on the Capitals defenders and offensive chances. It worked. Capitals forward Tom Wilson’s speed and aggressive point defense has been sorely missed by the Capitals, but not by the Penguins. The Capitals defenders have sagged into their defensive zone to clog the slot, which plays to the Penguins advantage.
The Penguins need to further exploit this aspect and light the lamp. Conor Sheary and Derick Brassard have been particularly adept at playing low then generating chances. They will have to be on the scoresheet.
Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel have abundantly hit the score sheet with greasy goals from rebounds and low play.
To win Game 6, Evgeni Malkin’s line or Derick Brassard’s crew will have to push one or more across the goal line, too.
The Capitals 2-3 scheme, which often morphs to look like a 1-2-2 or even a 1-4, blocks the blue line and slows the Penguins rush. Chipping it into the zone crisply so the wingers have speed to chase is vital to break down the blue line wall and open space. The Capitals have backed in after the Penguins prove willing to play grinding hockey.
Neutral Zone & Defensive Strategy
Contrary to the “clog the neutral zone” theorem, the Pittsburgh Penguins are at their very best when they forecheck, forecheck, and forecheck the opponent’s defense until defenseman like Brooks Oprik or even Dmitri Orlov have fear in their eyes.
That’s when turnovers occur. That’s when goals happen.
Unfortunately, the Penguins “defense” has been poor. Odd-man breaks because of slow line changes, breakdowns in communication, and forwards not paying attention to their responsibilities have submarined an otherwise good series. The Penguins self-inflicted errors have done more for the Capitals than have the Capitals have done for the Capitals.
“Attention to detail” will be the Penguins necessary mantra. All forwards, even those who don’t like to play beyond their blue line will need to have their hands in the pile, tonight.
Braden Holtby yielded a pair of stinkers in Game 1. He has been rock-solid since. Matt Murray has not. Murray has yielded four goals from 35 feet and beyond, and yielded a couple of soft goals from closer.
Unlike the last two Cup runs, the Penguins defense is allowing shooters time and space to pick on Murray’s glove side. That’s bad news for the Penguins, who must take away that space and the good looks at the net.
The Penguins desperately need more big saves from Murray. They also need to crack Holtby and his shifty pre-game eyes. The Capitals have decidedly won the goaltending battle, unlike 2017 when Marc-Andre Fleury stole a couple games for the Penguins. Murray may need to do the same.
Gaffes and Blunders
If not for those gaffes and blunders, the series may be over and the Penguins would be in the Eastern Conference Final awaiting to play David to the Tampa Bay Lightning Goliath. Instead, the Penguins are risking their historical run.
Kris Letang. This writer has advocated for a reduced role for Letang and an increased role for Justin Schultz because of those very blunders. The Penguins don’t need to walk through a mine-field when they have reliable defenders able to scoop up those extra minutes. The Penguins defense also has to play to the best of its abilities as Alex Ovechkin can smell a victory.
The big Russian has not beaten the Penguins in the playoffs. 0-3. Like the 1976 Oakland Raiders who tried and failed multiple times before succeeding, then inscribed their AFC playoff victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on the Super Bowl ring, the Capitals are poised to do it. They are still the underdogs despite winning the Metro Division, despite the higher seed and despite the series lead.
You may notice nothing written about Phil Kessel. The simple reason is Kessel has been a non-factor and continues to play through injury. His ice-time has been reduced and the Penguins will have to win without him. Anything he contributes will be a bonus.
If the Capitals lose Game 6, they will be buoyed by the knowledge the get Tom Wilson back for Game 7, which would change the typical Game 7 mindset.
In the end, if the Penguins finally fall to the Capitals, it will be because of the mistakes. If the Penguins go down in Game 6 or Game 7, they will have no one to blame but themselves.