Game 7 Thoughts and Lineup Notes
By Scott Lowe
Tonight's Eastern Conference quarterfinal Game 7 between Washington and Montreal doesn't come down to anything more than playing harder and smarter than the other team. Goaltending obviously can have a huge impact, too, but the reality is that hard work and intelligent play can even defeat hot goaltending - but there has to be a commitment to playing the right style of hockey from all 20 players who are in the lineup.
Yes, Jaroslav Halak has stolen three games of this series from the Caps, and if he saves 45 out of 47 or 53 out of 54 shots again he will steal a fourth. But, the reality is, that Washington does have some say in that.
If the Caps continue to give him a good look at the puck without creating traffic in front and crashing for rebounds, if they continue to try to make the perfect shot and miss the net instead of being happy with creating a rebound situation and forcing him into scramble mode, and if they continue to wind up for the big blast from the outside, allowing the defense to adjust and block the shot instead of finding a seem and finessing the puck through traffic, Halak most likely will construct another brick wall.
But, if they can play with the same intensity they have generated the last five or so periods and combine that with more traffic, more crashing and better decision-making, that would be a really tough formula for any goalie to handle.
Halak has held the Caps to one goal in each of the last two games after they went the entire second half of the season without scoring just one goal in a game. Doing that again seems highly unlikely given those odds, but stranger things have happened in NHL playoff history.
"If we continue to put pressure on them, with our talent and our goal-scoring ability I'm sure we'll get some goals out of it," Washington winger Jason Chimera said.
Many have pointed to the Caps' suddenly-anemic power play, which has been held to one tally in the postseason, as a huge factor in this series, but the Habs have handled Washington's extra-man attack well all year long. While a power-play goal or two certainly would help, Washington was the best five-on-five team in the NHL this year, while Montreal ranked at the bottom, so the Caps can't panic if the puck doesn't start to bounce their way on the power play.
Instead, the bigger key seems to be not allowing the Habs to jump out to an early two-goal lead for the fourth time in the series. If the Caps can score first for a change, it becomes harder for Montreal to become the counter-puncher, which will open things up into the type of game at which Washington excels.
"These guys are a different team when they score first," said Washington center Brendan Morrison, who will be back in the lineup tonight after being a healthy scratch in Game 6. "It enables them to sit back and get in their defensive system a little bit."
In addition to Morrison, it appears as though gritty winger Scott Walker will dress for the first time in the series. Walker scored a huge goal vs. Boston last year to propel the Hurricanes into the Eastern Conference finals. Morrison will replace Tomas Fleischmann, a 20-goal scorer who has yet to dent the twine in the playoffs, while Walker will be inserted on the fourth line in place of David Steckel.
Young defenseman Karl Alzner also has been recalled and will replace injured Tom Poti, who was hit in the face with a puck in Game 6 and underwent surgery yesterday. Alzner, a cool customer who has shown well thus far in 51 career NHL appearances, will be reunited with rookie John Carlson, his former defensive partner in Hershey.
"We have a lot of chemistry out there," Carlson said. "We played together a whole bunch of games in Hershey, so it will be fun to have him here and will be fun to play with him tonight."
Normally playing a couple of youngsters together on defense would be frowned upon in such an important game, but both players have shown poise beyond their years and Montreal rookie blueliner P.K. Subban turned in a solid effort after being called up for Game 6.
That leaves Washington's lineup looking like this for tonight:
Alex Semin and Mike Green, both of whom have struggled offensively throughout the series, had much more impact in Game 6. Both were more active in the attacking zone, with Semin generating several good scoring chances and Green carrying the puck with more confidence. Green at one point hit the post with a wrist shot high on Halak's glove side. Their performance will be a key to Washington's level of success tonight.