by Mike Vogel @VogsCaps / washingtoncaps.com
Game 6, Eastern Conference quarterfinal series. Capitals lead, 3-2.
Five games into this first-round Stanley Cup playoff series between the Caps and the Carolina Hurricanes, no road team has won and there have been no lead changes in any of the games. Game 6 is on Monday night in Raleigh, and if Washington is able to become the first road team to win a game in the series, the Hurricanes’ season will be over.
Two nights after the Caps gave them a thorough 6-0 beating in every facet of the game, the Canes’ life will be on the line in Game 6. This is Carolina’s first trip to the postseason in a decade, and the Caps pushed Carolina to the brink with a dominant Game 5 victory, the largest single-game winning margin in Washington’s playoff history.
Washington entered Game 5 with just one goal – an Alex Ovechkin power-play strike in Game 4 – in its previous two games, and the Caps found themselves all even in a series it once led 2-0. But in demolishing the Canes on Saturday night, Washington asserted itself as the defending Cup champions, looking every bit the part throughout the 60 minutes.
“It was great,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, who had two goals and four points in the game. “I feel like when we play this way, you get confidence. Guys were buzzing, and guys are giving each other energy on the bench, too. So you just keep pushing and pushing, and that’s what we like to do. You need that confidence too, moving forward here.”
Carolina had a trio of power play chances in the second period, and success on any of them would have tied the game; the Caps’ lead was only 1-0 at that point.
“They wanted it more,” says Carolina winger Justin Williams of the Caps. “At a lot of turning points in the game, they came up with big plays when they needed to, and we weren’t patient enough to stay with them.”
Braden Holtby stopped all 30 shots he faced to record his seventh career shutout, nudging past Olie Kolzig (six) for the Caps’ all-time postseason record in that category. Washington delivered on special teams, too. The Caps killed off all five Carolina power plays and scored three power-play goals in four opportunities.
Playing without T.J. Oshie (broken clavicle), the Caps were energized by the return of Devante Smith-Pelly. With Oshie out indefinitely, the Caps summoned Smith-Pelly from AHL Hershey, where he had been toiling for the previous two months. Playing on the Caps’ fourth line, Smith-Pelly helped spark his teammates and the crowd in Saturday’s win.
“To be honest, I think we drew a lot from Devo being here,” says Nic Dowd, who scored the first postseason penalty shot goal in Caps history in Game 5. “His first couple of shifts, he got the crowd into it. Guys were just excited; it kind of brings a different buzz when you add a new element like that.”
“You lose a key leader in T.J. Oshie, and not one person is going to replace him,” says Caps coach Todd Reirden. “So everyone needed to take their game to a different level than it had been at. That means your best leaders have to got to even be better, and that was certainly the case [Saturday].
“All of our top guys, top leaders came ready to play and they all elevated their game. The leadership that they showed in the locker room before the game, I just felt it [Saturday] morning a little bit at the morning skate as well – I just felt confident in our team and how we were going to play. But that should be a pretty clear blueprint of how our game needs to look, and if we want to have continued success, then that’s the standard of how it has to be.”
Now the Caps will turn their focus to finishing off the Canes. They know it will be a difficult task, particularly in Raleigh, where they’ve been outscored 7-1 in two games in the series. But the Caps also believe they’ve found that “other level” of their game that had eluded them for the first four games of the series.
“I think it’s big because we did it the right way,” says Holtby. “Our forecheck was the best it has been all series. You could see directly on the third goal – on [Brett Connolly’s] goal – obviously [Alex Ovechkin] makes a great play, but that goal was created with multiple forechecks before that, creating that sense of not wanting to go back there because the [defensemen] know how hard it is when you’re forechecking hard.
“That’s something [the Hurricanes] have done good against us in the games where they’ve had success. Now we know what we have to do, and it’s about bringing it in Game 6 now.”
Carolina likely outplayed the Caps over the lion’s share of the first four games of the series, but the Canes left Washington late Saturday night with nothing positive to take from Game 5, and still missing three of their top nine forwards.
“Well, that’s the part that no one’s really talked about,” says Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour. “You take out three guys out of our top nine and we’re already potentially a little bit thin. And it’s the type of guys you’re taking out. You’re asking a lot for call-ups and guys to fill those roles.
“That’s the big challenge we have. But having said that, I still think other guys have to step up and at least be the players they can be, and that’s what we need out of everybody.”
Washington has finished six straight series by winning on the road, and last spring it became the second team in league history to win all four playoff series on the road. The last time the Caps clinched a series at home was April 27, 2015, when they finished off the New York Islanders in Game 7 in Washington.
“When we play to our identity and force other teams to make mistakes, and they’re in an elimination situation, then those mistakes become magnified. That team is already feeling the pressure of that being their last game, and if we play to our identity, then it really seems to match up nicely for those elimination games.
“That’s the challenge, for our team to be at and play to that identity [on Monday] in Raleigh, because we’ve shown it for spurts of Game 4, but we certainly haven’t shown what we did [Saturday] night.”