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Defense will decide Penguins’ fate in Game 7

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An ice-cold, but important take: the Capitals will claim this dramatic series if the Penguins don’t figure out their defensive fiasco from Game 6.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Six Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Washington Capitals, after falling to what seemed like a disastrous 3-1 deficit, have clawed their way back into winning contention on the coattails of the poor defensive effort by the Pittsburgh Penguins in Games 5 and 6. Tonight, a Game 7 victory will be won in the very same way if Head Coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t create a substantial plan in his decisions about Pittsburgh’s defensive line pairings. Unfortunately, as obvious as this fact is, it’s that simple.

Defenseman Trevor Daley missed Game 6 after suffering from a lower-body injury in Game 5, and has been on the dreaded day-to-day status train since leaving the ice after a couple of shifts. Even worse news came earlier today, as Pens Inside Scoop (per Rotoworld) reported that he officially sat out of the team’s morning skate. It’s likely we won’t see him dress again for Game 7.

Since his absence, Chad Ruhwedel was called upon to fill Daley’s spot, and the Penguins have seemingly shown that not having him in the lineup is crippling their defensive effort. It’s now at this point late in the second round, after showing resilience and weathering the giant blow to the roster, that the team is finally missing Kris Letang.

Ron Hainsey perfectly exemplified this in Game 6. Pittsburgh was desperate to find a way to get out of its own zone, and on an outlet opportunity, Hainsey was shucked against the boards by Andre Burakovsky, had the puck stolen from him on easily the best play of the entire 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and in turn, allowed for the second tally for the Caps to slip past Marc-Andre Fleury. This may have been the most dramatic example, but the Penguins’ defense was a mess the entire night.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Six Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Turnovers also become Pittsburgh’s worst nightmare. They had 11 giveaways, with six of them coming solely from defensemen. Ian Cole, just by himself, had four. Which is surprising given his fantastic performance in the postseason prior to this. With a lethal offense sported by this Capitals team, giving them shiny gifts like this is an easy way to punch your ticket to an early off-season.

Washington is cruising now. Its superstars are finally showing up, goaltender Braden Holtby is back in his rhythm (even though that’s probably due to Pittsburgh’s horrid lack of pressure on him these last two games), and the young gun Burakovsky is running away with this series with three goals in two games. Things are looking very, very bad for the Penguins, and the gaping, defensive hole they’re suffering from is the biggest reason the Capitals may conquer their rivals tonight.

Game 7 is going to be a wild, ultimate test of guts and grit. I can’t imagine we’ll see the same defeated Penguins again, and I’m so here for it.