ARLINGTON, Va. - During the Capitals’ final on-ice tuneup before flying to Boston for Game 7 Wednesday night, the team practiced multiple three-on-three and five-on-five scoring situations in the attacking zone.
Players whizzed across the ice sheet at full speed. They appeared fervent and energized. Despite the intensity, the offense managed to score only twice against rookie goaltender Braden Holtby.
The Bruins can relate to that.
Holtby, the 22-year-old former third-stringer who is largely responsible for the Capitals being in a position to knock off the defending Stanley Cup champions, again was the focus of media intrigue in the locker room following the hour-long practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex Tuesday.
His teammates were loose and jovial roughly 30 hours away from a game that could end their season.
“I’m right here if you need me,’’ Matt Hendricks jokingly yelled to the swarm of reporters crowding around Holtby. “Twenty-six is available in the front corner.’’
The majority of Capitals who spoke Tuesday were eager for Game 7. Ready for the challenge. And given Washington’s success at TD Garden this season, that’s understandable.
The Capitals won both regular-season games in Boston, including a shootout victory March 29, and have taken two of the three playoff games on the Bruins’ home ice.
“Obviously, Boston’s a tough arena to play in, but it suits our team well,’’ said Holtby, who has a .935 save percentage through six games. “It brings us down to a level where we don’t try and do too much or be too fancy. We’ve been guilty of trying to do too much to impress our home crowd and letting our emotions get to us.’’
Defenseman Joel Ward shared Holtby’s sentiments.
“You go on the streets and people are starting up Bruins chants,’’ said Ward. “It’s a sports-loving town. We just embrace it. It keeps us more relaxed.
“Maybe at home, sometimes guys feel the pressure of trying to do well in front of your own fans because they care so much. But when you’re on the road, it’s just us. You’re fighting for each other knowing that you’re going into a hostile environment.’’
The Garden is sure to be hostile, and the Bruins have been known to thrive on that energy. They also won more Game 7s during last year’s Cup run (three) than the Capitals have won in their history. Washington is 2-7 all-time in Game 7s and lost the only Game 7 they played on the road (to Pittsburgh, 3-0, in the 1994-95 Eastern Conference quarterfinals).
“You have respect for them because of what they’ve done, and you know that they know how to win,’’ said Capitals forward Brooks Laich. “But that was last year and they’re a little bit different of a team. You can’t fear the fact that they won the Stanley Cup.’’
Heading into the conclusion of such an evenly matched series, the Capitals don’t expect much to change, but one area of concern could be the emergence of the Bruins’ star scorers. Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner acknowledged that he and his teammates noticed a change in some of Boston’s previously dormant players in Games 5 and 6.
Through the first four games of the series, the Bruins’ top five regular-season scorers (Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, and Tyler Seguin) accounted for no goals and one assist. In the next two games, the same quintet recorded three goals and eight assists.
“Some of their big guys have started to come out of their shell and play a little bit more,’’ said Alzner. “If we can pick up our physical game, maybe we can take them out of that a little bit. It will be tough. They’re all extremely good.’’
Conversely, the Capitals will look to Alex Ovechkin to deliver a vintage performance. The superstar said Tuesday that sometimes he gets “angry’’ if he doesn’t play a lot, which happened when he logged a playoff career-low 15:34 in Game 5.
While he netted the equalizer late in the third period of Game 6, he also missed a few opportunities in close and on one-timers that fans are used to seeing him convert. His play could be a difference-maker in Game 7.
“He’s definitely a big part of the team, just like [Zdeno] Chara is a big part of their team,’’ said Capitals coach Dale Hunter. “Still, when you come into a game like this, you need the four lines and six D and goalie to go. Come playoff time, it’s always the surprise guys who end up scoring the big goals.’’
Said Ovechkin, simply: “If we lose, we go home.’’