WASHINGTON, D.C. — At 11:07 p.m. on June 7 in Las Vegas, the nightmare ended and Washington Capitals and their fans struck gold.
Burdened by a 44-year history of playoff failures, the Capitals had become the National Hockey League’s version of the team that never could. Washington had not made it past the second round of the playoffs during the Alexander Ovechkin era. Simply put, the Capitals could not win the big one and wasted numerous chances even to get there.
However, maybe the hockey gods, as coach Barry Trotz calls them, smiled upon the Capitals this spring. They played in four playoff series, trailed in every one, yet somehow found a way to recover each time. The goal posts became their friend, they overcame injuries, Ovechkin played tremendously and Evgeny Kuznetsov may have just become a superstar.
That is why the Capitals rallied to beat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. This victory allowed Washington to clinch the series, four games to one and gave the franchise its first NHL title ever.
“I’m so happy for that group, for all the stuff that they had to endure,” Trotz said in a press conference afterward. “All the things that were said about them, Ovi in particular; (Nicklas) Backstrom, that whole group. To me, they changed all the narratives. They checked off every box.”
This championship has cemented the legacy of Ovechkin as a champion. Since the Capitals had never even made a conference final while he played, many simply dismissed him as a goal-scorer and not much more.
However, recently, maybe this year more than others, Ovechkin seemed to mature and grow into a complete hockey player and leader. Perhaps it is because he got married last summer. Maybe it is because he became a bruising physical left wing who played defense well and not just on occasion.
Whatever it was, Ovechkin became a leader. He showed that in the second period of this game when Backstrom sent him a perfect cross-ice pass that he whistled into the net past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. That gave Washington a 2-1 lead, but the Capitals then needed to rally for two goals in the third period.
Vegas had taken a 3-2 lead before the Capitals got goals from Devante Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller just 2:31 apart for a 4-3 lead with 7:37 remaining. Eller’s score might have been another occasion of the hockey gods smiling. Fleury made the save between his leg pads, but the puck slipped out behind him.
The goalie did not see it. Eller did, slipped behind him and tapped the puck into the net for the game-winning goal. Washington tightened up its defense after that, and the long wait was soon over. The Capitals finally won the Stanley Cup.
“It meant everything,” Ovechkin said at the press conference. “This organization wanted it so bad. It just was – joy. We knew this year is going to be our year.”
The Caps got great performances from so many players. Goalie Braden Holtby was magnificent throughout the playoffs, despite starting off on the bench. Kuznetsov seemingly could not be stopped, the defense and others played tough. Backstrom bounced back from a finger injury and made it back to help. He and Ovechkin have been together a long time.
In fact, when commissioner Gary Bettman gave team captain Ovechkin the Cup, Backstrom was the first person he handed it off to which is a big honor in the world of hockey.
“It’s great, it’s awesome,” Backstrom said in a postgame interview. “It’s a great feeling. We dreamed about lifting the Cup, and now we’re here.”
Ovechkin won the trophy as the playoff MVP, but the Capitals did so many small things well. Smith-Pelly scored only seven goals in the regular season, and he then scored seven in the playoffs.
The Capitals often tied up Vegas with a neutral-zone trap, which the Golden Knights had trouble containing. Vegas struggled to stop the Washington power play, and the Golden Knights simply did not have as many talented forwards as the Capitals.
Vegas was a huge surprise this year, making the final despite being an expansion team. The Golden Knights made their money by playing a fast-paced style where they forced turnovers and turned them into scoring chances. However, the Capitals could handle that style, and Vegas had some offensive problems.
In the end, the Capitals finally put it all together after waiting since 1974. They went to Vegas and beat all the odds. Finally, this was their time to shine.
“They were the better team,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said at a press conference. “They won. They deserved to win. They played great hockey.”