Capitals, Penguins Prepare for Game 7 of Their Playoff Series

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

There have been precious few events in Washington sports like the one that will take place tonight at Verizon Center, and the heroes of years past have names such as Dale Hunter, a Washington Capitals great, because he once scored an overtime winner to keep a season alive. Painfully, the villains include names like Pat LaFontaine, the New York Islander who unforgettably turned an April morning miserable for Washington fans, because he scored in the fourth overtime, ending a never-ending game, not to mention the Capitals' season.

Only 10 times, in any sport, has Washington hosted a Game 7, a history that dates back to the 1924 World Series, when Walter Johnson came out of the Senators' bullpen to beat the New York Giants at old Griffith Stadium. Bobby Dandridge had his moment, leading the Bullets -- remember them? -- over the San Antonio Spurs by a bucket out in Landover, now 30 years past. Just two weeks ago, Sergei Fedorov took his turn, burying the New York Rangers in the first round of these Stanley Cup playoffs because he scored late in the third period of a tie game, when a goal the other way would have sent the Capitals home for a long, painful summer.

So tonight, into the specter of Washington Game 7s, enter Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the stars of the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, respectively. As good as this Eastern Conference semifinal series has been -- and, impossibly, "it's lived up to the hype," Washington forward Brooks Laich said -- it is only tonight when it can cement itself as one of the best and most riveting events in Washington sports history.

"It's what's going to make these guys great," Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's going to make them remembered. No one's going to remember who lost Game 7. But they've got the ability to -- and I told them yesterday -- to create history again."

Rapidly, this group of Capitals is creating a history of Game 7 performances. When April 2008 began, the 10-year-old Verizon Center had never hosted a seventh and deciding game in either hockey or basketball. The most recent Game 7 hosted by a Washington franchise was in 1992, when the Capitals still played in suburban Landover.

Suddenly, these Capitals have made seventh games a regularity. Ovechkin, who has 13 points in the series, and his teammates will host a Game 7 for the third time. Crosby, who has countered with 10 points of his own, went to the Stanley Cup finals with the Penguins a year ago, but has never faced a seventh game.

"I don't think, mentally, you can get overworked about or stressed out about, 'Oh, this is a Game 7,' " said Laich, who fired the shot from the point that David Steckel tipped in for the overtime game-winner in Monday's Game 6. "People sometimes put too much pressure on themselves, and that limits their play. For us, for some reason, we play loose and free when we're facing elimination."

There is no shortage of evidence to that effect. A year ago, the Capitals forced a seventh game in their first-round series against the Philadelphia Flyers by going to Wachovia Center and securing a gut-wrenching victory. Last month, they forced a seventh game against the Rangers by going to Madison Square Garden and blowing out New York.

Monday, they withstood Crosby's tying goal with less than five minutes remaining, endured a shot off the crossbar by Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi early in overtime, then forced a seventh game on Steckel's tip-in.

"When we're desperate," Ovechkin said, "we have more power than anybody."

Tonight, though, the Penguins will be equally desperate. The Capitals have faced elimination -- and won -- four times in these playoffs already. This time, Pittsburgh faces that situation for the first time.

"Now, it's coming down to that point where one shot and one situation is going to be talked about as the deciding one," Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma said.

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