(1A) Panthers at (WC2) Capitals
7:30 p.m. ET; TBS, SN360, TVAS2, NBCSWA, BSFL
Florida leads best-of-7 series 3-2
The Florida Panthers can advance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 1996 when they visit the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Capital One Arena on Friday.
Florida leads 3-2 in the best-of-7 series after winning the past two games, including scoring five unanswered goals to rally for a 5-3 victory in Game 5 on Wednesday. The Panthers need one more victory for their first playoff series win since defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in seven games in the 1996 Eastern Conference Final.
“Closing a series out is probably the toughest thing to do,” Panthers forward Noel Acciari said. “We’ve got to bring our ‘A’ game. We’re coming into a good crowd, and they’re going to be coming out flying and we’ve just got to play our game.”
The Panthers might have to try to close out the series without Carter Verhaeghe, who will be a game-time decision after missing their morning skate Friday with an undisclosed injury. The center leads Florida with 10 points (five goals, five assists) in the series, including a Panthers playoff record five points (two goals, three assists) in Game 5.
“Just kind of happened yesterday and hopefully he’s ready to go,” Florida coach Andrew Brunette said.
Washington needs a win to force Game 7 at Florida on Sunday and avoid being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since defeating the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final to win their first championship.
“It’s pretty simple,” Washington defenseman John Carlson said. “We’ve had a lot of good moments so far in this series and I think that we know what it takes on our good effort and our wins and all that. So focus on that and have the confidence that I know we do have, and try to learn from our mistakes and move past it and have a good effort tonight.”
Much of the Capitals core from their Stanley Cup team remains and has experience in this situation. Washington trailed the Tampa Bay Lightning 3-2 in the 2018 Eastern Conference Final after losing three straight games and rebounded to win the series with a 3-0 victory in Game 6 at home and a 4-0 win in Game 7 on the road.
This is the first time the Panthers have led in a playoff series since taking a 3-2 advantage in the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the New Jersey Devils. Florida lost Games 6 (in overtime) and 7 (in double overtime) of that series.
Here are three keys for Game 6:
1. Play the full 60 (or more)
Washington’s inability to maintain its focus throughout the entire game proved costly after it took a 3-0 lead in Game 5, and it likely will need a complete game to extend this series.
Though the Panthers have excelled at comeback wins — 25 during the regular season and two in this series — having a better start would be a good way to discourage the Capitals’ bid to avoid elimination.
“It’s kind of felt like pretty much of the series that we’ve started with nerves and maybe not quite the starts we’re looking for,” Brunette said. “We’ve got to find a way to be better tonight because it’s going be a fun building, it’s going to be energetic and they’re a desperate team.”
2. Don’t get stuck in the middle
This was a theme from the start of the series and Game 5 provided a reminder how important neutral-zone play is between these teams. Washington controlled the neutral zone early on the way to building a 3-0 lead and then got sloppy with the puck and Florida took advantage.
Verhaeghe’s overtime winner in the Panthers’ 3-2 victory in Game 4 also followed a neutral-zone turnover by the Capitals.
“Certainly, that’s a point of emphasis for us, that we continue to do the right things against this team,” Washington coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’s not a team that you want to feed and fuel their offense. So it’s just being smart with what we do to help eliminate that, and dictate our style as well.”
3. Go deep
The Capitals will be without forward Tom Wilson for the fifth straight game because of a lower-body injury and the Panthers will be without forward Mason Marchment for the second straight game because of a lower-body injury. If Verhaeghe is also unable to play, that will further test Florida’s depth.
Ryan Lomberg, who has been a healthy scratch since playing in Game 1, will likely enter Florida’s lineup if Verhaeghe is unable to play.
“If he’s out, it’ll definitely be tough just (because of) how well he’s been playing,” Acciari said of Verhaeghe. “But I think this whole season we’ve had that ‘next up’ mentality. With all the careers guys have had, it could be anyone any night. That’s what makes this group special.”
Panthers projected lineup
Anthony Duclair — Aleksander Barkov — Claude Giroux
Jonathan Huberdeau — Sam Bennett — Sam Reinhart
Mason Marchment — Anton Lundell — Noel Acciari
Ryan Lomberg — Eetu Luostarinen — Patric Hornqvist
Ben Chiarot — Aaron Ekblad
Gustav Forsling — MacKenzie Weegar
Brandon Montour — Radko Gudas
Scratched: Petteri Lindbohm, Joe Thornton, Lucas Carlsson, Maxim Mamin, Robert Hagg, Jonas Johansson
Injured: Markus Nutivaara (undisclosed), Carter Verhaeghe (undisclosed)
Capitals projected lineup
Alex Ovechkin — Evgeny Kuznetsov — Conor Sheary
Marcus Johansson — Nicklas Backstrom — T.J. Oshie
Connor McMichael — Lars Eller — Anthony Mantha
Johan Larsson — Nic Dowd — Garnet Hathaway
Martin Fehervary — John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov — Nick Jensen
Trevor van Riemsdyk — Justin Schultz
Scratched: Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Matt Irwin, Michal Kempny, Pheonix Copley
Injured: Carl Hagelin (left eye), Tom Wilson (lower body)
Wilson was on the ice prior to the Capitals morning skate Friday but remains day to day. … Samsonov will make his fourth straight start.