The Washington Capitals can advance to Round 2 to play the Pittsburgh Penguins for the third consecutive season, but first, they will have to win one more game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The game will be telecasted on NBC Sports Washington or CNBC for those of you outside of the Washington area at 7:30 from Nationwide Arena.
Their first opportunity will come Monday night in Columbus. After the Blue Jackets took the first two games in D.C., Washington has won three-straight games in the series, including two at Nationwide Arena, to take a 3-2 series lead. Washington won Game 5 by a score of 4-3 in overtime on Saturday afternoon.
Here are five keys to the game for Monday’s Game 6 tilt:
1. Match Columbus’ Urgency
The Blue Jackets have their backs to the wall and have lost three consecutive games, including both of their home games. Blue Jackets’ head coach John Tortorella guaranteed a Game 6 victory and that the series would return to Capital One Arena for Game 7 on Wednesday night. (The Capitals faced a similar situation last year when Maple Leafs’ head coach Mike Babcock guaranteed a Game 6 victory after Washington won 2-1 in overtime in Game 5, but the Capitals beat the Maple Leafs 2-1 in overtime in Toronto to clinch the series.)
Washington will have to come out with a purpose on Monday night if they’re going to win, because Columbus is due after outshooting the Capitals 42-29 — including 16-1 in the third period — on Saturday afternoon. Many credit Braden Holtby with stealing the game for the Capitals, stopping 15 of those 16 third period shots.
The Capitals are going to have to match their performance in Game 4 at Nationwide Arena when they won 4-1 in one of their most dominating performances of the season to close out the series.
Columbus will be determined to avoid another loss on home ice, so expect them to try to bring their absolute best game of the season. The Capitals will need to match that effort if they want to close out the series Monday.
2. Defensive Zone Exits
The Capitals have struggled all season with getting the puck out of their own zone. At times Saturday, it seemed as though the Blue Jackets had taken up permanent residence in the Washington zone. Columbus’ game-tying goal in the third period on Saturday came after a failed clearing attempt.
At times, the Caps were too hurried in trying to clear the puck, not looking to see whether there may be any Blue Jackets lurking. At other times, their passes were too weak to clear the zone before being intercepted by Columbus.
The Caps will need to be patient and deliberate in their passes and clearing attempts. Dmitry Orlov has perfected the art of flipping the puck into the neutral zone with the right amount of touch to avoid an icing call.
3. Better Puck Management
The Capitals had 18 giveaways in Game 5 on Saturday, while Columbus only had 10. Two of Columbus’ three goals on Saturday came on breakaways, including a short-handed tally. Columbus’ speedy forwards will make the Caps pay if they continue to turn the puck over. The Caps had only five giveaways in Game 4, and they should work to replicate that effort on Monday.
4. Stay Out of the Box
Even with the Caps’ penalty kill on a hot streak — killing 14 straight Blue Jacket power play opportunities, the Capitals have to maintain discipline and stay out of the penalty box. Columbus converted on 4 of 8 powerplay opportunities in their two victories. While both teams have avoided cheap after-the-whistle calls in recent games, the referees called a tight game at the beginning of Game 5, calling 9 penalties during the first two periods. Washington can’t afford to give Columbus extra chances on the man-advantage.
5. Don’t Lay Back
Ban the turtle! The Capitals cannot go into a defensive shell when they get a lead. Washington gave up a 2-0 lead in Game 1, 3-2 leads in Games 1 and 5, and a 3-1 lead in Game 2 by being too conservative once they’ve gotten the lead.
Instead, the Capitals have to keep their foot on the gas whenever they have the lead. The Caps can play responsibly while continuing to press the action as they did in Game 4.
The Blue Jackets had a number of comeback victories down the stretch, and it’s clear that they don’t see any lead as too big to overcome. With their season on the line on Monday night, the Jackets are sure to keep charging if they find themselves trailing. The best antidote to that is for the Capitals to keep pushing to add to any lead that they get.
If they play to win — and don’t play to avoid losing — they can lock up the series on Monday.
By Harrison Brown