By Sally Fahey
The chant echoed throughout PNC Arena during last final minutes of the Capitals’ 5-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round.
“Game 7! Game 7!”
Trailing by three goals, the Capitals already knew that they were going to have to play the deciding game in the best-of-7 series at Capital One Arena on Wednesday.
But the reminder from the Hurricanes fans added an exclamation point to a frustrating evening.
The defending Stanley Cup champions wasted an opportunity to finish off the pesky Hurricanes, so their hopes for a repeat will hang in the balance in Game 7. The winner will face the New York Islanders in the second round.
Last season, the Capitals were 4-0 when they had a chance to eliminate their opponent, and they won each of those games on the road.
“Our level was not where it was in Game 5, and I knew we were going to need that to be able to take a desperate team out that’s played hard the whole series,” Washington coach Todd Reirden said. “It’s not been an easy series at all, nor did we expect it to [be], looking at how they played from the beginning of the year on. So we need to get back to Game 5’s level of compete, urgency, desperation and then some to be able to come out on top here.”
In their 6-0 win in Game 5, which gave them a 3-2 lead in the series, the Capitals imposed their will physically on the Hurricanes and pressured them into repeated turnovers and mistakes with their forecheck for the first time in the series. They talked afterward about needing to follow the same blueprint in Game 6 to eliminate the Hurricanes.
It initially appeared the Capitals would do that, grabbing a 1-0 lead 5:06 into the first period on a goal from Brett Connolly. But they couldn’t sustain it.
“I thought we played pretty well to come out and we just faded,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “I’m not sure why.
The Hurricanes tied it on Warren Foegele’s goal at 10:35, five seconds after a Carolina power play expired.
Alex Ovechkin put Washington back in front 2-1 with 4:48 left in the first off a left-wing rush. Carolina tied it again, though, capitalizing on rookie defenseman Jonas Siegenthaler’s turnover behind the net with Teuvo Tevarainen’s goal 1:56 into to the second.
When Jordan Staal gave the Hurricanes a 3-2 lead with his rebound goal from in front 3:51 into the third period, it was the first lead change in the series.
“They’re a hard-working team and they earned their breaks tonight,” Reirden said. “They carried the play for some portions of their game and that was basically self-inflicted for some it in terms of how we were executing with the pucks.”
Some will point to Ovechkin’s disallowed goal with 9:26 remaining in the third period, which would have tied it 3-3, as the turning point. The Capitals did not agree with the ruling that Ovechkin pushed Hurricanes goalie Petr Mrazek’s pad, causing the puck to enter the net, which was upheld after a coach’s challenge.
After Justin Williams scored on a deflection with 8:02 left to make it 4-2, Washington made a push, but it wasn’t enough. Dougie Hamilton’s empty-net goal with 3:06 remaining sealed the win for Carolina
“When they were up 4-2, that’s when the urgency started for us,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “But that was too late.”
Ovechkin’s night ended when he received 10-minute misconduct on top of a slashing minor with 1:08 remaining. He had regained his composure by the time he spoke to the media after the game and was already looking forward to Game 7.
“It’s over,” Ovechkin said. “Right now, nothing you can do. After a fight, you can’t do anything. It was a good battle. Good for them, they win Game 6, and you know, Game 7 is going to be [very] interesting. We know how to play that.
“Pressure on both teams, but it’s a good chance for us to beat them at home.”
The home team has won every game in this series. But the Capitals probably didn’t expect they’d need to play Game 7, especially after winning the first two games. They had the clear advantage of experience against the Hurricanes, who are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009 and have had 13 players make their postseason debut in this series. Now they’re in a position where one bounce could cost them.
The Capitals know that has more to do with what they didn’t do Monday, and in Games 3 and 4, than any ruling they disagreed with.
“You control what you can control,” Holtby said. “We just didn’t have enough guys on board tonight to win that game. That’s going to have to change if we’re going to have success in Game 7.”
The Capitals are 4-7 in Game 7 in the Ovechkin era, beginning with his first playoff appearance in 2008. But they have some recent history to feel good about after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final last season.
“Best out of one game,” Backstrom said. “We’ve just got to regroup and look ahead here and make sure we can come out ready. They’re a good team, as I said at times. They’re aggressive. They’re playing good hockey. We got to regroup here and take advantage of the home ice.”