- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom will suit up for their 12th career Game 7 Wednesday as the Washington Capitals and Carolina Hurricanes try to push one another off the edge of elimination.

Carolina can counter the Capitals with one of their own former players, Justin Williams, who holds the NHL record for most points recorded in Game 7s with 14 (seven goals, seven assists).

But playoff experience has not dictated how this series has gone, considering the Hurricanes — who hadn’t made the playoffs in 10 years — are keeping up with the defending Stanley Cup champions.

Instead, three factors have prevailed throughout the first-round tilt, and it’s likely they will play a part in deciding which side wins Wednesday and advances to the conference semifinals.

Physicality wins

Throughout the series, in games where one team out-hit the other by a wide margin, it usually spelled not merely a win but a blowout. The Hurricanes had 52 hits on the Capitals in Game 3, controlled the momentum throughout and cruised to a 5-0 win. In Game 5, which Washington won 6-0, the Capitals in turn outpaced Carolina in hits, 48-32.

That was the game Devante Smith-Pelly returned to the lineup after two months in the AHL. Capitals coach Todd Reirden said at the time he wanted Smith-Pelly to help the team establish more contact on Carolina’s defensemen, and he got what he was hoping for.

But physicality is not simply about the number of hits. It’s also when and where they take place.

“The start of the game is important,” Reirden said. “I think that the last few games we’ve started to impose a little bit more of our physical play that we were looking for and I think there is still another level of that.”

Power play pressure

The Capitals went 3-for-4 on the power play in Game 5 and 3-for-17 in the other five games of the series combined. It’s been a struggle apart from their one blowout win.

Just look at the second period of Game 6, when the Hurricanes easily killed off one particular Washington opportunity. For most of the two minutes, the Capitals could not get the puck into the offensive zone at all and gave it away three times. Evgeny Kuznetsov finished the game with three giveaways, and two of them came during that power play.

Smith-Pelly, himself a penalty kill contributor, said Carolina’s killers are “just putting a lot of pressure on guys” this series.

“Some teams like to sit back and let Backy and Kuzy control it and kind of try and take care of Ovi and stuff like that,” Smith-Pelly said, “but they’re pressuring the puck carriers and pressuring the half walls and stuff like that.

However, he added, “Those guys (his teammates) will adjust and make their plays.”

Home ice

The Stanley Cup Playoffs have been chaotic, with every division leader besides the Capitals already eliminated. In the midst of all that, Washington-Carolina is the only series where the home team has won every game.

Braden Holtby offered a new theory as to why that is, saying Capital One Arena and PNC Arena are substantially different not just because of who the fans are cheering for, but because of physical attributes like the ice and boards.

“The ice there is different; it’s bouncy,” Holtby said. “We play a more skilled kind of game, puck-moving, and sometimes you have to simplify a lot more there. The boards there are inconsistent … Every rink is different in that way.

“If we’re in this situation again, you’ve just got to do some more homework,” he said.

Tactically, Washington will enjoy the benefit of having the last line change, giving Reirden his choice of what matchups he wants to try to exploit.

In his first season as head coach and with the pressure of defending a Cup title bearing down, this might be the moment he truly earns his paycheck.

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