Six Keys to Game 6

By Scott Lowe

While tonight’s Game 6 of the NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals is not a must-win for the top-seeded Washington Capitals, a loss would definitely tilt the scale back in favor of Montreal in terms of the pressure quotient and leave a series that the Caps seemed to be in control of to an anything-can-happen Game 7 in front of a nervous Verizon Center crowd.

“The whole organization wants to win right now,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We don’t want to have to go back to play in Washington for a seventh game. It’s going to be hard, but we can do it.”

So, while there still is some margin for error for Washington tonight at Bell Centre, it boils down to the same thing that you can say about every sport: The longer the underdogs hang around, the more confidence they get and the more the pressure mounts on the favorites. That said, an early goal or two by Montreal – as we saw in Game 5 – could spell disaster for the Caps.

“It’s a real positive that we never feel out of it,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said. “Your shoulders never slump and you feel you can come back. But you don’t want to get into that situation too often, because in Game 5 we couldn’t come back.”

Throughout this series lineup information has been relatively easy to come by, with the only real storylines focusing on each team’s goaltending situation and whether Sergei Kostitsyn was in or out of Habs’ coach Jacques Martin’s doghouse. Tonight, however, as the stakes become a little larger, there are some secrets, but for once they will not involve the goaltenders. Semyon Varlamov, who is 4-0-0 all-time with a 1.97 GAA in Montreal, will start for the Caps and Jaroslav Halak, who has stopped more than 80 shots in his two playoff victories, will be in net for the Habs.

Washington Post beat writer Tarik El-Bashir reports from the pregame skate that coach Bruce Boudreau played it close to the vest as far as the Caps’ possible line combinations are concerned, not even leaving the normal clues by having to-be-scratched players skate a little longer. It does appear as though Shaone Morrisonn, whose physical presence has been missed in front and behind the net, will be back in the lineup after missing two games with an arm injury. That means the defensive pairings should return to where they were early in the series. As for the forward lines, there is speculation that David Steckel may return to the lineup and that struggling forward Alex Semin might skate alongside a new center in an attempt by Boudreau to get him jump-started offensively.

Semin, who is second in the NHL in postseason in shots on goal with 29 but has yet to score a goal, would benefit from a physical linemate who can open up room for him and create chaos in front of Halak. If Steckel is back in the lineup could we see Semin paired with someone like Jason Chimera? Not likely, but it would be an interesting combination. Or could Brooks Laich be bumped up to the first line with Mike Knuble, who has had an outstanding all-around series, dropping down to play with Semin and maybe Brendan Morrison? And if Steckel is back in the lineup, who sits out? Based on production alone, Tomas Fleischmann might be a candidate to sit instead of Boyd Gordon. Neither Gordon, Fleischmann nor Eric Fehr saw much ice time during the third period of Game 5, though, so anything is possible at this point. Scott Walker was quoted by Bashir after today’s skate as saying that all the forwards were told to be ready.

For Montreal it appears as though Jaro Spacek, who missed games 3 and 4 because of an illness, will be out again. Young blueline prospect P.K. Subban, who had two assists in his only previous NHL game, has been recalled from Hamilton of the AHL and appears likely to be in the lineup.

If Washington can win tonight to avert its fourth consecutive seven-game playoff series, it would mark only the second time in the Caps’ history that they had mustered three road victories in one series. The first time came in 1998 when they won games three, four and six in Boston en route to the Stanley Cup Finals.

“Detroit won three on the road,” Boudreau said. “Phoenix won two on the road. It’s been like that. I think Philadelphia won two o on the road. I’m not sure what it is, but I hope it continues.”

For it to continue, there are six keys to tonight’s game for the Caps:

1) Get a goal on the power play – Washington led the league in power-play percentage this year at 25.2 percent, but the Caps have only gone 1-for-24 with the extra man in this series and are a mere 4-for-41 vs. the Habs this year. They are 1 for their last 31, dating back to game 80 of the regular season. There is speculation that Ovechkin, who has scored three times in the series from in-close, may be moved to the front of the net to provide a physical distraction and scoring touch there. For that to make a difference, however, Washington’s perimeter players will have to be more patient with the puck and use fake shots and quick, simple passes to open up shooting lanes. Brendan Morrison performed well at the point in Ovechkin’s absence during the season, so look for the veteran locker-room leader to possibly show up there tonight. If not Morrison, you may see Joe Corvo, who has logged a ton of power-play time in his career, manning one of the points in extra-man situations. “To me, it doesn’t matter (where I play),” Ovechkin said. “If the coach tells me to go play up there, I will. It doesn’t matter what it takes. If we need it, I’m going to be there.”

2) “Secondary superstars” must step up – So far Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom have scored 10 of the Caps’ 20 goals in the series. Top-scorers Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Tomas Fleischmann and Brooks Laich have combined for one. Semin and Green must contribute offensively for Washington to succeed. Semin needs to look at quality over quantity, to stop taking the fadeaway, one-leg 40-foot wrist shots and be more patient. Use speed to force the defense back. Fake shots to create open lanes. Move the puck to open teammates. Battle in front. He needs a garbage goal to get going. Green needs to move the puck quickly and let the game come to him instead of forcing shots into shinpads and trying to make the perfect play. Rookie John Carlson has been outstanding at this throughout the series and would be a good player for Green to emulate – believe it or not.

3) Play from in front (in more ways than one) – Giving up a goal early is not a big deal with Washington’s talented offensive group, but falling behind 2-0 again would be devastating and allow the Canadiens to sit back and trap the neutral zone and to collapse into the shooting lanes in their own end. In addition, Washington’s forwards need to create more distractions in front against Halak like they did in the latter stages of Game 2 and throughout games 3 and 4 (against Halak and Carey Price). One thing that has become clear in this series is that it is possible to get under the Monteal goaltenders’ collective skin.

4) Keep it simple – Cycle down low, drive hard to the outside and take the puck to the net, finish checks, go hard to the net, create traffic in front and make the easy passes to open players. It’s the playoffs, not rocket science. Style points don’t count.

5) Play both ends – The Caps must be physical at both ends of the ice by finishing checks on the offensive end and playing big and tough in front of their own net. This includes the forwards, who have been caught reaching instead of driving a shoulder into or otherwise boxing out Habs stationed in front of the Washington net on several scoring plays this series.

6) Win the key faceoffs – As a whole the Caps have been dominant in the faceoff circle throughout this series, but in both losses Washington has failed to win many of the critical late-game draws.