In order to understand if the Washington Capitals can win Game 7 vs. the New York Rangers, it is important to see how the seventh seed in the East arrived here in the first place.

The Capitals seemed to be a team without an identity for much of the 82 game regular season. They weren’t the same offensive juggernaut that scored a league high 300 plus goals two seasons ago, and they weren’t they defensive stalwart that yielded a franchise best GAA of 2.33 last season.

They are now a team playing somewhere in between those two teams, and are led by a coach that has a bit more patience than the previous one. Hunter plays a more disciplined system, asking more from his players than they thought they may have been capable of giving.

That is how the Capitals arrived at this point after a very mediocre season, they continue to live another day because they are executing  the time tested playoff formula with success, and are also doing all of the little things necessary to win must-have games. They are playing Dale Hunters style, and doing so with more confidence each time they step onto the ice.

When you mix in one part great goaltending, one part great defense, and one part timely goal scoring, you have a formula for unlimited playoff success. When you execute those components most of the time in the post season, you play seven game series. When you execute those ingredients all of the time during the playoffs, you are the No.8 seeded LA Kings right now.

While the LA Kings became the first Nop.8 seed to knock off the top two teams in the conference during the post season, Washington has a chance to do so as a No.7 seed tonight. As a Caps fan, that would be just fine with me.  The Capitals eliminated the defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins in overtime of Game 7 in Boston, and have the chance, if they play their game, and regardless of what the Rangers do, have more than a good chance to win Game 7 on the road again.

That Game 7 in Boston was the first of two potential elimination games for the Capitals in the playoffs this spring, and they have won both. New York has also faced two elimination games in the 2012 and has obviously also won both games. New York and Washington have traded victories in this series. The Caps have yet to lose consecutive games in the 2012 playoffs, and they have only won consecutive games once – Games 4 and 5 of their first-round series with Boston. 

The Capitals, have gone the distance twice in Round 2 before, losing both times. In 1988, Washington lost Game 7 to a New Jersey team coached by current Rangers executive and assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld, and in 2009, the Capitals lost Game 7 to eventual Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh. New York is 4-0 all time at MSG in Game 7’s, and over the past 32 playoff years, there have been 128 second-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

Roughly one in four of them have gone the full seven games, but none involving the Blueshirts. The Alex Ovechkin led Capitals are playing in their seventh Game 7 since Washington returned to the post season with The Great in 2008.

Whether or not the Caps hold a distinct advantage in terms of experience is yet to be determined. Washington was not intimidated in Game 7 vs. the Bruins in Boston. Much of what happens tonight and if the Caps advance to face the New Jersey devils will depend on several keys, and most of them, Washington is doing already with a great deal of success.

KEY 1: CONTINUE TO BLOCK SHOTS

If you look at this series, the Capitals have played the Rangers game, as much as they did the Bruins game in round one. Washington, not New York has become the shot-blocking machine that the Blueshirts are notorious for being.

When relying on a rookie goalie as the Capitals have, preventing as many shots from getting through to him is a huge key to helping him build and sustain his confidence. Washington has blocked 293 shots during the Stanley Cup Playoffs (SCP), or an average of 22.5 per game.

The Rangers have proven that blocking shots is also key when protecting a veteran goalie as well. New York ranks second behind the Capitals during the post season with 248, or 19 per game

Many old time hockey enthusiast hate the blocked shot. The post lock out rules was supposed to promote skill, and open up the game. These rules were supposed to spotlight the fastest, most skillful players in the league, while helping to put a slow death to the likes of the trap and blocked shot.

It is not hard to figure out that when the commentator says the team that is selling out the most is winning the game, he is talking about the team blocking the most shots and sacrificing their body. The Bruins did not do it, neither did the Blues, or Canucks as much as the Caps and Rangers in the first round.

The lack of blocked shots from the Rangers during the past three games could also be one of the reason Washington has taken two of three since the Blueshirts won the triple overtime Game 3 thriller.

New York Post columnist Larry Brooks recently wrote,” The increase in blocked shots around hockey does not equate to an increase in commitment toward winning the Stanley Cup. It’s just the latest strategy devised to negate talent, like the trap before the lockout that everyone hated with a passion”.

I like Brooksie and love his classic battles with the Rangers head coach even more, but I understand John Tortorella’s frustration with the award winning hockey columnist at times with comments like these.

It is a fact to this Caps fans that Washington would not be this far if they were averaging less than 15 blocked shots per game during the 2012 SCP. Since Marian Gaborik deposited the biscuit in the basket at 12:14 a.m. of Game 3, the Capitals have a distinct 3-to-1 advantage blocking shots (75-23), winning two of the three games. If this trend continues in Game 7, it could spell doomsday for New York if they are not able to match the Caps intensity in terms of “selling out”.

Just one more tidbit on the shot blocking, the team that awaits the winner of Game 7, finished last in the NHL blocking shots this season, and is only averaging 11 per game during the post season. What do you think a few more shots on goal for either the Caps, or Rangers may have meant in the first six games of this series.

CAN THE CAPS TAKE ADVANTYAGE OF JOHN TORTORELLA’S MISTAKE:

Back in the day when the head coach John Tortorella led the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Stanley Cup title, he was known for being a coach that played an open style of hockey, as his Stanley Cup champion Bolts averaged 2.99 goals per game that season.

It was said in the NY media that “A long time ago before the lockout and in a galaxy far away in Tampa, there was a coach who proudly ran his team under the guiding principle that safe was death and indeed won a Stanley Cup under that banner.”

The quote continued, “But now John Tortorella disavows that philosophy with the zeal of a reformed sinner, much like a candidate for office who was for something before he was against it.”

Matt Calamia of NYRblushirtblog.com mentioned on Z-Best Raw Sports Talk that the Rangers head coach is known for holding grudges, and it is because of one, possibly two of these grudges, that the Blueshirts have the pressure of winning another Game 7 as a No.1 seed during the 2012 post season.

The highly touted rookie, Chris Kreider, who was the toast of Manhattan prior to Game 4, has now been relegated to picking splinters out of his rear end. Tortorella benched the kid, relegating him to fourth-line cameo appearances after two critical plays in the defensive zone in Game 4 that led to a pair of Capitals’ goals in Washington’s 3-2 victory.

The most notable blunder occurred when Kreider, with no backside pressure, tried to clear the puck from his zone, but instead threw a perfect pass to Alex Ovechkin who one timed the Kreider mistake past Henrik Lundqvist to give Washington an early 1-0 lead.

According to published reports in New York, Kreider was seen skating during Friday’s practice at the team’s facility in Westchester County with Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan on what could be called the second scoring line. For the past two games, Kreider had been with John Mitchell and Mike Rupp on what was a rarely used fourth line.

This could be the ultimate blunder by Tortorella. Is now the time to build the kid back up after tearing him down? If you are Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, or Alex Semin, aren’t you licking your chops to make the kids eyes wide right at the start?

The Capitals will have the distinct advantage of being in Kreider’s head, even if they aren’t the ones that screwed it up. Kreider has been a force since joining the Rangers right off his National Championship run with Boston College, but he is still a rookie in a large situation. He has to be thinking too much at this point to be as effective as the Rangers will need him to be. Kreider must be instinctive, with his play in this situation, and if he isn’t it will cost his team.

For Tortorella, moving Kreider up may be a risk/reward issue at this point. Torts has no choice but to make the move, the Rangers desperately need to find some 5-on-5 scoring. New York has not scored one pure five-on-five goal in 144:52 covering more than seven periods, and that by Anton Stralman in the first period of Game 5.

No forward has scored a pure even-strength goal since Tortorella benched Kreider while also simultaneously demoting center Derek Stepan from a top-six role to a checking line assignment between Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust.  Torts promoted checking center Brian Boyle to the spot between Ryan Callahan and Artem Anisimov.

Seems like a lot of unnecessary drama this late in a series, and one that no doubt could  have repercussions on the Rangers locker room in terms of confidence for a few of the players this team is going to need. This type of situation is exactly the type Caps head coach Dale Hunter used to sniff out as player. Hunter was great at sniffing out the weakness in a team and exploiting it. Even though Kreider is a talented kid, this situation does not set up well for him, and a crucial mistake in a Game 7 means his team is making tee times instead of preparing the conference final.

Another issue that could finally begin to creep in is fatigue. While the Rangers and Capitals have played the equivalent of a seven game series, and less than five minutes into the actual final game of the series will be the start of Game 8 so to speak. Tortorella went all in with his blue liners as Torts stuck with four primary defenseman through most of the three overtime contest.

Ryan McDonough, Marc Staal, Michael Del Zotto, and Dan Girardi combined to average 47:25 of ice time. McDonough skated almost 54 minutes of the contest. In comparison, only Dennis Wideman eclipsed the 40-mintes mark for Washington. Through the post season, the four have combined to average almost 26 minutes per game. The Caps top four defenseman of John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and Roman Hamrlik have averaged just a tad less than 23 minutes.

Tortorella has also played top forwards such as Ryan Callahan for a lot of minutes as well. Callahan is averaging 24:37 of ice time while the Caps top gun slinger, Alex Ovechkin, who has not been on the ice for long stretches because of what Dale Hunter call matchup issues, is averaging just 19:46 of playing time per game. Washington’s top forward ice time eater has been center Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom is averaging 21:28 on the sheet while the Rangers have three forwards that have more than 21- minutes of ice time per game.

Even if the Rangers win the series, how effective will they be vs. a rested and ready Devils team that polished off the Philadelphia Flyers in five games? The same can be said for the Capitals. However, if points were awarded to the coach playing a better time management game with his line combinations, I’d have to give Huntsy a few extra marks for using what appears to be a deeper bench than that of the Rangers.

If the Capitals can withstand the initial 10-,mimute surge that the Rangers will throw at them at the start of Game 7, and not allow a New York goal, then rest easy Caps fans, your team will be heading to Jersey early next week. If Washington scores first, and to steal a line invented right there in the Big Apple, “Forget about it”. The Capitals are 7-1 this post season when scoring the first goal.

HOLTBY-HOLTBY-HOLTBY-

As if carrying your team as a 22-year-old rookie goalie, and earning a series win in Boston, and now possibly New York during a seventh game isn’t enough pressure for one young man to handle, how about throwing in the birth of your first child as good measure.

That is exactly what is happening to Braden Holtby, whose head must be spinning from all of this newfound success in his life. Holtby and his fiancée, Brandi Bodnar, welcomed baby boy Benjamin Hunter Holtby to the world on Thursday. On Friday, the Capitals’ rookie net minder was his calm and composed self as he readied for Game 7 against the New York Rangers.

“It was a great day. Mom and baby are doing great, but now I’m focusing on hockey,” said Holtby, who added that the excitement of being a first-time father wouldn’t be a distraction. “Circumstances are different, but it’s still the same game. It’s still hockey. The main thing you learn when you turn professional is to separate personal life from hockey, and that’s what we’re gonna do here.”

While Holtby’s fiancé is delivering in a much bigger way off the ice, Braden is delivering on it. The rookie is 7-6, with four overtime games, and has a 1.95 GAA as well as a .935 save percentage. His 400 saves are the most of any goalie in the post season. Holtby ranks first all-time in Caps playoff history in save percentage (minimum 10 games) and first in goals against. Current Caps goaltending coach Olaf Kolzig owns the record for most playoff starts with 45. Don Beaupre is second with 36, and Pete Peeters is third with 30.

The most impressive stat is the Holtby has not lost back-to-back decisions in 28 consecutive starts. Subsequently, the Capitals haven’t lost back-to back affairs in nearly two months last dropping a pair on March 22-23 to the Flyers and Winnipeg Jets. However, both games extended beyond regulation and the Caps managed to earn a point in both.

The last time Holtby lost two straight was last season( Nov. 19 and 22, 2010) when he lost 5-0 to the Atlanta Thrashers and the New Jersey Devils in consecutive games.. Holtby allowed three goals in nine minutes and was replaced by Michael Neuvirth in Atlanta, and three nights later in New Jersey, Bruce Boudreau rode the then 21-year-old the entire way as he took the loss.

 Following the game in New Jersey, Holtby was sent back to Hershey, and was recalled on Jan 20 to face the NY Islanders.He would win that start making 24 saves, and would lose just once during his second trip up to the big club, a 2-1 shootout loss to the Rangers.

He would finish the 2010-11 season with a 10-2-2 record. His 1.79 GAA and .934 save percentage was tops on the team, and along with Michael Neuvirth, and Semyon Varlamov, Holtby would become part of hockey history, as the Capitals would be the first team in NHL history to boast three goalies, aged 22 or younger to win at least 10 games.

Holtby was a big reason why General Manager George McPhee decided to trade Varlamov to the Avalanche on July 1, instead of trying to resign him. The Caps received a 2012 first round selection in return.

Holtby is vying to become just the fifth rookie in NHL history to lead his team to a Stanley Cup title. Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy did it for the Montreal Canadiens, while Cam Ward accomplished the feat with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006. In 2010, Annti Niemi was between the pipes for the Chicago Blackhawks as they won their first Stanley Cup in nearly a half century.  Niemi was gone the following year signing a free agent deal with the San Jose Sharks.

THE CORE 4 MUST PRODUCE AT LEAST ONE GOAL:

During the post season the Capitals core four of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, and Mike Green have combined to score 12-goals, and 25-points. That is 35-percent of the capitals point output for this post season. While secondary scoring has been much more productive, and Matt Hendricks has been the unsung hero of the playoffs for Washington, it is tough to envision a Capitals Game 7 victory without at least one of the Core 4 scoring a goal.

Each has a game winning goal during the post season, and has been vital in different parts of the game. Mike Green has been one of Washington’s best defenders playing within the system and not taking unnecessary risks. Green has blocked 22 shots, which ranks him eighth in the NHL during the postseason.

 Nicklas Backstrom has been steady in the red dot, wining almost 51 percent of his draws (112/221). His Game 2 double OT winner in Boston is a huge reason why the Caps are here.

Despite sitting for long stretches because his defensive skills lack discipline within coach Hunters system, The Great 8 has, at times, has carried his team through vital parts of hockey games during both series. His all-around play in terms of what he brings from the physical side cannot be underestimated. Only Ryan Callahan (62) and teammate Matt Hendricks (57) have more hits than Ovie (54) during the playoffs.

Ovechkin has faced two great goalies during the post season, and has been frustrated at times by both Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist. He has showed his maturity by not giving up on plays and taking bad shots as he did when then Montreal rookie net minder, Jaroslav Halak frustrated Ovechkin a few years back during a stunning seven game round one loss to the Habs.

The Great 8 is a few crossbars away from a hat trick, or two in the playoffs, and despite the attention being paid to his lack of ice time at crucial points during games, Ovie has stayed focused on the task and is still shooting, and passing with precision.  His media savvy has not always been great, but Ovechkin is sure saying all of the right things right now.

For just the second time during his postseason career during Game 5, Ovechkin was held without a shot, but still managed to score on his first shot in Game 6. He is still third in the NHL at present with 48 shots, and has just 16 missed shots.

The Capitals used the former” young guns” during a huge victory last Saturday on home ice as that contest marked the 48th postseason game for the Core 4 since Backstrom, Green, Ovechkin and Alexander Semin played in their first NHL Stanley Cup playoff game on the same night in April, 2008.

It also marked the eighth time in those 48 games that Washington has gotten as many as three goals from the “Core” in the same playoff game. The Caps are 7-1 in those games. It was the third time in those 48 games that any three different members of this unit have scored in the same playoff game. The Caps are 3-0 in those games.

“Young Guns, yeah,” says Green sarcastically. “We’re not so young anymore. We needed to step up. It was important that we got a win tonight in our building and we’re the guys who need to start scoring.” Yes Mike Green, stepping up tonight would go a long way in helping Caps forget this Core’s post season history.

A LITTLE BIT OF O FROM THE D WILL GO A LONG WAY:

While the Rangers Blue Line may be fatigued, the Caps blue line will be looking to score, and do so with the extra man. Washington’s 10 blue liners have combined 30 goals and 112 assists for 142 points in the team’s 82 games this season. A defenseman contributed at least one point in 62 of Washington’s games this year, and combined for 20 more points this season than they amassed last season (28 goals, 93 assists).

GAME 7 FACTOIDS:

HOLTBY VS. KINMG HENRIK

Four Hall of Fame or future Hall of Fame goalies have played in a Round 2, Game 7 since 1980, combining for eight starts. Patrick Roy is 3-1, but the other three (Ed Belfour, Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek) are a combined 2-2 for an overall 5-3 record. Even the greatest ones can lose in these situations. The list of other top-tier goalies who lost a Round 2, Game 7 during their careers includes Mike Liut, Tom Barrasso, Curtis Joseph and Tim Thomas.

As far as age goes, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is more than seven years older than Washington's Braden Holtby. In 10 matchups of two goaltenders with at least seven years' difference in age, the older goaltender has won five times and the younger goaltender has won five times. Holtby is also only 22 years old. The 33 previous Round 2, Game 7s included 10 starting goaltenders under the age of 23. Those young goalies have a record of 7-3, but the last one to win his the Round 2, Game 7 at such a young age was Felix Potvin with Toronto in 1994.

Since Potvin's victory for the Leafs 18 years ago, only one goalie under 23 has started a Round 2, Game 7. That was Semyon Varlamov, who was pulled from the Caps' 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in 2009. This trend suggests that being a successful goaltender in high-pressure playoff 0situations requires more experience than it did 20 years ago.

DOES GAME 7 MATTER IN ROUND 1?

The Rangers and Capitals become the 11th and 12th teams since 1980 to go the distance in Round 2 after also playing seven games in Round 1. That's means only 4 percent of all teams in the playoffs over the past 33 seasons have actually been in this situation during the second round. The other teams have combined for a Round 2, Game 7 record of 5-5.

This is only the second time in 132 series (including this year), that two teams facing each other in a Round 2, Game 7 also played a Round 1, Game 7. The only other time this happened was in 2003, when Minnesota and Vancouver met in the second round. Current Rangers forward Marian Gaborik will make some history tonight by becoming the only player to have appeared in both of these games. Gaborik was on the winning side of the Wild-Canucks matchup, when Minnesota came back from a 3-1 series deficit and beat Vancouver 4-2 in Game 7. Gaborik looks to make it 2-for-2 tonight.

 How well have teams winning Game 7 in the second round performed in the rest of the playoffs?

History says: Not so great

This stat has been mentioned on broadcasts and in the press numerous times, but it is a fact: No team that has ever played 14 games through the first two rounds of the playoffs since the addition of a best-of-7 series in Round 1 has gone on to with the Stanley Cup.

Of the 10 teams that had to play 14 games to reach the league's semifinals, none survived the Conference Finals, with the closest being the 2002 Colorado Avalanche. Those Avs, defending Stanley Cup champs seeded No. 2 in the West behind Detroit, beat Los Angeles in seven games and then beat San Jose in seven games. They took the eventual champion Wings all the way to seven games, where they collapsed at the end, losing 7-0.

The 2002 Avalanche played a total of 21 games without reaching the Cup Final, which is why Peter Forsberg was able to finish as the playoffs' leading scorer without playing in every round.

On a more positive note, there have been four Stanley Cup champions and nine Stanley Cup finalists who won a Game 7 in Round 2 after playing a shorter series in Round 1. The last champion was the 2009 Pittsbrugh Penguins, who won a six-game series over Philadelphia in Round 1, beat Washington in Game 7 of Round 2, swept the conference finals against Carolina, and beat Detroit in an epic seven-game series

But the 14 games through two rounds played by both the Rangers and Caps already means that if tonight's winner reaches the Staney Cup Final -- or better yet, wins it -- history will be made.

*COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK RANGER WEB SITE.

WHO GETS THE GAME WINNER TONIGHT?

The Capitals enter Game 7 with seven different players that have recorded game-winning goals in these playoffs. Washington has had a different player score the game-winning goal in all seven of its playoff wins this spring. Jason Chimera became the seventh different Capital to supply a game-winning goal this postseason with his goal in Game 6, joining Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward and Alex Ovechkin on that list.

ONE GOAL GAME LIKELY:

All seven of the Capitals wins this postseason (and five of their six losses) have been by one goal. Washington is the first team since the 2006 Buffalo Sabres to have a string of seven-straight victories that were decided by a one-goal margin in a single postseason. The Capitals are the third team in the last five seasons to have at least 12 one-goal games in a single postseason. The all-time record is 16 by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006.

COURTESY OF CAPS GAME NOTES: