For Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals will be both familiar and foreign territory.
When the Capitals face the Lightning on Wednesday night, Ovechkin and Backstrom will be skating in their 11th career Game 7 together — the most by any two teammates in NHL history.
But in their first 10 winner-take-all matchups, a berth in the Stanley Cup Final was never at stake. That changes Wednesday.
“[This] is the biggest probably game in my life and in this team, this organization,” Ovechkin said Tuesday.
Game 7s have not always been kind to the Capitals, who are 3-7 with Ovechkin and Backstrom in the lineup. But in a playoff run in which Washington has rebuffed adversity and exorcised some demons already, it’s fitting that a Game 7 decides the team’s fate.
The Capitals have maintained throughout the season that they are a more resilient bunch than in years past. They overcame the loss of six regulars from last year’s Presidents’ Trophy- winning lineup to capture a third consecutive division title.
“For being a division winner, we had to claw our way most of the season,” defenseman John Carlson said. “I think we can draw from that.”
The Capitals overcame a 2-0 series deficit in the first round against Columbus. They then eliminated the Penguins in Game 6 in Pittsburgh despite having to use five rookies because Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky were injured and Tom Wilson was suspended.
“We’re pretty comfortable in the uncomfortable situations, which is a great characteristic of our group,” said goaltender Braden Holtby, who is 2-4 in Game 7s. “Now is when you use all that past adversity and past challenges of overcoming it to your advantage.”
Washington’s 3-0 win in Game 6 on Monday was another example. Facing elimination on home ice, the Capitals brought energy and physicality from the start.
In his 13th season, Ovechkin is staring at his best chance yet to lead the Capitals to an elusive Stanley Cup title. He set the tone Monday with bone-crunching hits on Yanni Gourde and Braydon Coburn. In his 100th game of the season, Ovechkin was flying.
“He had a huge game,” forward Devante Smith-Pelly said. “Guys on the bench definitely were feeding off the way he was playing.”
The Capitals finished Game 6 with 39 hits to Tampa Bay’s 19.
“That’s probably one area where we have an edge is the size and physical play,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who had a game-high six hits. “Over the course of a seven-game series, it’s something we talked about. When we get opportunities, don’t run out of position, but try to wear them down when you can.”
The Capitals are confident that a gradual investment in physical play throughout the series will have a cumulative impact.
“That’s definitely the goal,” said Orpik, the only Stanley Cup champion on the Capitals’ roster. “You hope that it wears them down.”