The Washington Capitals, whose outlook was bleak after losing three straight to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals, forced a Game 7 on Monday night, turning in one of their most complete efforts of the season. T.J. Oshie (two goals) and Devante Smith-Pelly (one goal) provided the offense while Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik seemingly hit anything and everything that moved in a Tampa sweater.
“That’s one area where we have an edge is our size and physical play. Over the course of a seven-game series, it’s something we talk about. Take those opportunities. Don’t get out of position. Try to wear them down when we can,” Orpik said.
That isn’t to say Washington’s superstars have been missing in action. Ovechkin leads the charge on offense during this postseason run, personally creating a team-high 56 even-strength scoring chances — 22 from high-danger areas such as the slot and the crease — with 19 more chances with the man advantage. His 3.1 total points per 60 minutes is his highest rate since 2010, a year which saw first-round disappointment at the hands of Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens. John Carlson’s 1.5 assists per 60 minutes is a postseason best and Nicklas Backstrom’s offensive support in terms of total assists (2.4 per 60 minutes) is also at a career high. In addition, Washington is seeing a high rate of scoring chances in its favor at even strength with Backstrom on the ice (62 percent) and an even higher share of the high-danger chances (66 percent) during this playoff run — no small feat considering Backstrom’s line starts in the defensive zone almost a third of the time. Plus, no player qualifying for the playoffs this year has more primary assists on the power play than Backstrom (eight).
“He’s such an easy player to have chemistry with,” Oshie said of Backstrom to NBC Sports’ Pierre McGuire. “He sees the ice so well, he’s always looking to make the pass and he usually can hold on to the puck for long enough for you to get into an open spot.”
In fact, this Capitals team is generating its highest postseason goals per game rate during the Ovechkin era, and significantly higher than anything we have seen since Barry Trotz took over coaching duties in 2014.
And as good as the offense has been, the defense has been equally solid. Washington’s top pair of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov skated 12 minutes and 34 seconds against Nikita Kucherov and 10 minutes against Steven Stamkos in Game 6 on Monday night, preventing both from generating any high-danger chances at even strength. The Capitals, meanwhile, produced 10 scoring chances, four from high-danger areas, over that span. Tampa Bay’s second line centered by Brayden Point didn’t fare much better against Niskanen and Orlov: one scoring chance compared to seven and a goal scored for Washington in less than five minutes of play.
Orlov has been impressive all postseason. Among blue-liners skating at least 300 minutes at even strength in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, none have been on the ice for a lower rate of scoring chances against per 60 minutes (22.4). If you widen that net to the 30 defensemen skating at least 200 minutes he ranks third and Niskanen ranks ninth (24.5). And it is largely because of those two defensemen Washington is allowing just 28.1 shots against per game, the second-lowest postseason mark for the franchise since 2010.
Goal support and shot suppression are indeed a recipe for success, one that makes things much easier on Braden Holtby in net. Based on his team’s offense and defense, Holtby’s .869 win threshold in this series, which is the minimum save percentage needed to win more games than he loses, is a postseason low for the team, one that gives them a significant edge in Game 7 against Tampa Bay, whose win threshold for Andrei Vasilevskiy is .928.
“This group has a lot of fortitude. They just do,” Trotz told reporters on Monday night. “We just keep taking whatever challenge is thrown at us and build off it. This group doesn’t waver. It has a spirit about it, a strong spirit. Going into Game 7, I don’t think I would want another — and I’ve been doing this for a while — I don’t think there’s a team I’ve ever had that I’d want to go into a Game 7 with.”