Gorman: Penguins own edge over Capitals in Game 7s
There is a devout devotion in hockey to the belief no trophy is harder to claim than the Stanley Cup, and no game is harder to win than the one to clinch a playoff series.
Especially a Game 7.
“I think experience helps, whether it's Game 7 experience, playoff experience or just knowing what you need to do to prepare in big games,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We've played a lot of them as a group. We always respond the right way.”
Despite blowing a 3-1 series lead in this Eastern Conference semifinal against the Washington Capitals, the Penguins take a powerful edge into Game 7 on Wednesday night at Verizon Center.
The Penguins own a 5-0 all-time road record in Game 7s, the best mark of any team in any of the major North American professional sports leagues. They essentially own the Capitals in the postseason, winning eight of the past nine series.
“We know it as a group. Guys have been through it,” Penguins winger Chris Kunitz said. “Other guys who haven't, we'll definitely talk in the next day-and-a-half and let everyone know that there is nothing after this, if we don't get the win.”
That one of those Game 7s came at the expense of the Capitals — even if it was eight years ago — will be shared by the four Penguins veterans who experienced victory in this very scenario.
In 2009, the Penguins beat the Capitals, 6-2, in Game 7 of an Eastern Conference semifinal at Washington. The Penguins also would win at Detroit in seven games to clinch the Stanley Cup.
“It was a long time ago. It's been awhile,” Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. “It's a new game, a new series, but I gained some experience from that time and know what to expect, know how it's going to be.”
The Penguins have four players from the '09 Cup champions — Fleury, Crosby, Kunitz and center Evgeni Malkin — in their lineup. Four Capitals remain from '09: captain Alex Ovechkin, centers Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle and defenseman Karl Alzner, along with former Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wants his veterans to rely not on records but to share experiences with those who haven't been through a road Game 7.
“We're not a coaching staff that lives in the past. We try to stay in the moment,” Sullivan said. “But certainly to not recognize the experiences that this group has gone through and the successes this group has enjoyed and how they've overcome those challenges, we would be remiss not to share those experiences because I think that can help the group moving forward to respond the right way.”
Of course, the pressure is on the Capitals to overcome past playoff failures.
They haven't advanced past the second round with Ovechkin. The Penguins eliminated the Capitals on the way to their third Cup in '09 and in six games last year on the way to a fourth.
The Capitals can exorcise their demons, as they are riding momentum after beating the Penguins in back-to-back games.
But that's never been the narrative. The Capitals haven't beaten the Penguins in three consecutive playoff games and could be primed for more heartbreak.
“If the Capitals think they won an easy game and because of that they'll win Game 7, I say ‘No,' ” Malkin said. “We need to understand, we have great experience. We've played in Game 7 before. … When you play Game 7, it's almost 50-50. There's no one favorite.”
So, the Game 7 stories will be shared. These Penguins won a Game 7 against Tampa Bay at home last year on their way to the Cup, but winning at Washington will be a new experience for most of the team.
“That wasn't this group,” Penguins winger Conor Sheary said. “This organization had a tradition of winning, and that's part of it, but this group has to focus on this next one.
“We can leave the history in the past and worry about the future here.”
When it comes to winning Game 7s at the Capitals, the Penguins veterans have a history. This is a chance for the rest of the team to make their own story to share.