After many years together in the Southeast Division and then a few more after moving to the Metropolitan Division together, the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals have finally paired up for a long overdue playoff series. The physical, hard-fought series has met any and all expectations heading into game 7 on Wednesday night in Washington, D.C. One team will emerge from this battle and continue the chase for the 2019 Stanley Cup, but the more significant result long-term could prove to be the fuel for a natural rivalry that had yet to really reach its potential.
As for the here and now, the series has been about as even as they come. Each team is a perfect 3-0 at home, and through six games each team has scored exactly 17 goals including one empty-netter each. The game has the Hurricanes still seeking the one road win needed at a minimum to win a playoff series as a lower seed.
At a high level, game 7 is mostly about the transition to back to Washington. Due to match ups, home energy or whatever else, the Hurricanes forecheck has not been as consistently effective on the road. That difference has a domino effect in terms of the Hurricanes ability to generate enough offense without a big contribution by the forecheck and also has opened up the transition game for the Capitals. Those changes specific to playing in Washington are featured in my watch points for game 7.
‘What I’m watching’ for the Carolina Hurricanes versus the Washington Capitals
1) The Hurricanes forecheck
I continue to think that this series ultimately gets decided by which team is better able to advance the puck. The Hurricanes forecheck has been its best at home but only intermittently impactful on the road. As noted above, when the Hurricanes forecheck is not going it impacts all aspects of the game. As much as anything, the Hurricanes offense has used the forecheck as a catalyst. When that forecheck does not click like in game 5, the Hurricanes suddenly look deficient on offense. In addition, when the Capitals can get behind the first layer of the forecheck quickly, the Hurricanes defense has looked vulnerable defending the rush. The Hurricanes have yet to really figure out how to stop the Capitals from moving the puck and first forwards down the wings and then exploiting the the opening in the middle of the ice.
More than anything, I think Wednesday’s game 7 is decided by how effective the Hurricanes forecheck is.
2) The first goal and its effect
The Hurricanes showed resiliency in coming back from a deficit twice in game 6 on the way to a 5-2 win. That game marked the first game that either team came back from a deficit to win. Scoring first is important and could have an even bigger effect in this big game because of the additional pressure on the team that is trailing. As such, I will be watching to see who scores first of course but also to see what effect it has on the flow of the game.
3) The top players
I have talked throughout the series about the importance of a team’s best players to lead the way in games like Wednesday’s. Thus far, the Capitals stars have the upper hand in terms of production on the score sheet, but Sebastian Aho and company did make a significant contribution in game 6, so the hope is that they are rounding into form just in time. But game 7 might be more about the wily veterans. Jordan Staal had a phenomenal game which was his best of the series in game 6. Justin Faulk continues to look comfortable in what has been a physical series. And Justin Williams totes in his ‘Mr. Game 7’ legacy. Regardless of who it is, the Hurricanes will need big efforts from at least a few of their top players.
4) Special teams
If the game is tight, a special teams advantage could decided the outcome. In general, the Hurricanes are better off playing 5-on-5 hockey, but holding their own on special teams will also be critical on Wednesday night. I will be watching special teams on many fronts early in the game. Will the officials tighten things up to make sure the game stays under control in which case, there could be more penalties? With the pressure, which team’s power play can stay loose?
The puck drops at 7:30pm with John, Tripp and Mike on Fox Sports Carolinas.