Through six games, there have been opportune goals, glaring turnovers, dazzling saves, crunching hits, killer penalties, blowouts, whining, glares, stares, pushes, shoves and, inevitably, injuries.
And The Fight, of course. Who’ll ever forget the aging NHL star, Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, and would-be star, Andrei Svechnikov of the Carolina Hurricanes, having a bare-knuckled Russian brawl? The fight, of course, won by Ovechkin.
But after all of that it has come down to this: both teams have won three playoff games and Game 7, in Washington’s Capital One Arena on Wednesday, will decide who’s on the happy, perhaps smirking side of the handshake line when the Eastern Conference series ends.
One lasting image of Game 6, and the Canes’ 5-2 win Monday at PNC Arena, will be Ovechkin leaving the ice, seething, mouthing at the refs, banished early to the locker room after a slashing penalty. It was an ugly scene, one Caps coach Todd Reirden later said was reflective of Ovechkin being “unbelievably passionate.”
Ovechkin is sure to be his snarling, snorting-bull self in Game 7, with the look-to-kill he had so often last year in leading the Caps to the Stanley Cup. The Caps will be counting on the crowd giving them energy, just as Caps fans did in Washington’s first three home games. They’ll be counting on those who won the championship last year to play like champions.
And the Canes? “We’re the underdogs,” defenseman Calvin de Haan said a few days ago, and matter-of-factly.
Carolina was a wild-card entry into the playoffs, the Canes’ playoff experience nil when it came to players such as Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and others.
Yes, the Canes do have “Mr. Game 7,” the captain, Justin Williams. He has won three Cups, the first with the Canes in 2006. He has 14 points in the eight Game 7s he has played in his career, seven of them victories. But so much of this is new for many players. So, too, a Game 7.
Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Monday that Game 7 could be fun, one to remember, that the players should embrace the opportunity. Fun? Is that possible, or will it be 60 minutes -- or more -- of grinding tension and nerve jangling?
“Everybody knows there’s one team going home after (Game 7) and there’s no tomorrow,” Brind’Amour said Tuesday. “So there is that tension in it. But I think, in Game 7s I played in, there was actually less. You just know this is it, there is no tomorrow, you’re not playing these guys again. Just let it all out. The best teams win seven-game series.”
Many would say the Caps are the best team. They’re the defending champs. They have Ovechkin, a 51-goal scorer this season and a future Hall of Famer. They have Nicklas Backstrom, who has scored big goals in the series, and goalie Braden Holtby. They have Evgeny Kuznetsov, a center so silky good at his best but relatively quiet much of the series. Will Game 7 be his game?
But the Canes are feeling it. They lost the first two games of the series, yet have won three of the last four. Here they are.
Brind’Amour has them believing. Williams knows just what to say. Before Game 6, Teuvo Teravainen said the Canes had won many “must-win” games this season during their push to the playoffs, then went out Monday and scored a goal to help them win another one.
The Canes were crushed 6-0 in Game 5 in Washington. So what? One game. They allowed the first goal and twice trailed in Game 6. So what? They scored three times in the third period to win it and force Game 7.
“I can’t imagine that being much different for us,” Pesce said after Monday’s game. “This was do-or-die for us tonight. I’ve heard Game 7s are exciting. But I think we’ll all ready for it and excited for it.”
It’s still unclear if Svechnikov, who has been in the concussion protocol since the fight in Game 3, will return. He skated on his own again Tuesday. Brind’Amour might roll out the same lineup from Game 6, looking for a similar result.
“Both teams know they can beat each other,” Brind’Amour said. “It comes down to execution, it comes down to will factor and then a break here or there.”
It will be a game of strategy, of matchups. Reirden, at home, will be able to get the matchups he wants on the ice. The Caps will be looking to force some penalties and load up on the power play, let Ovechkin unload his lethal one-timer.
“That is their ace in the hole, a huge part of their game,” Brind’Amour said of the Caps’ power play.
But there’s always the unexpected. Game 7s can make for new heroes, can make hockey history.
“This is another chance that no matter how old you get, you can look back on it and say, ‘Man, we did something special there,’” Brind’Amour said.