LAS VEGAS, NV — For Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, the juice was worth the squeeze.
Perennial contenders for The Presidents’ Trophy as the best team in the National Hockey League during the regular season, that success did not transfer into the post-season, however, as the Capitals and their fans were subject to early exit after early exit despite some the best teams ever assembled on paper.
On the ice, it was a different story.
Since coming into The League in 1974-75, the Capitals failed to make the playoffs the first eight seasons of existence. Twenty-four years later, Washington advanced to its very first Stanley Cup Final in 1997-98 but the Capitals were swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings.
After three consecutive exits in the second round and an exodus of talent including Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, and Nate Schmidt to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights following the 2016-17 season, the window for the top scoring player since he came into the The League in 2005 appeared to close.
But on Thursday, June 7, all was forgiven as Devante Smith-Pelly tied it 9:52 into the third period before Lars Eller delivered the game-winner 2:31 later as the Washington Capitals stormed back to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights, 4-3, in Game Five of the Stanley Cup Final to capture their first title in their 43-year history.
“It’s just like a dream,” Ovechkin, with more regular-season goals (607) than any other player since the Capitals made the Russian forward their first pick in the 2004 NHL Draft, said.
With 15 goals during the post-season, Ovechkin was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the playoffs joining Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr as the only players to win a playoff MVP and three Hart Trophies, awarded to the NHL’s regular season most valuable player. But as the final seconds wound down on their dream season come true, all Ovechkin cared about was hoisting Lord Stanley itself as a sea of red spilled out on to the ice at T-Mobile Arena in Sin City.
It took years of heartache and disappointment for Ovechkin and the Capitals to realize their dream — and when they finally passed the cup from player to player the lofty expectations and bitter endings were all but forgotten.
“It’s like you get to write the best story in the world yourself, score the game-winner in the Stanley Cup Final. I don’t know how it can get better than that,” Eller, the first player from Denmark to win a Stanley Cup, said. “We played right to the last second. It was a battle all the way through, just like it’s supposed to be.”
Qualifying for the post-season for the 10th time in the last 11 years, the Capitals quickly fell into a 2-0 hole to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs as whispers or yet another collapse echoed in the District of Columbia. Washington rebounded, however, winning four straight before solving arch-nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in six games thanks to Evgeny Kutznetsov’s game-winner in overtime.
The triumph over the Penguins marked the first time in 20 seasons the Capitals made the conference final — and the first time in 24 seasons they defeated the Penguins in a playoff series.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) June 8, 2018
But Washington was just getting started.
In a seven-game series for the ages, the Capitals survived the Tampa Bay Lightning — once again overcoming a 3-2 deficit — as goaltender Braden Holtby delivered back-to-back shutouts in Game 6 and 7 to set the stage for the final.
After failing to even get the start to begin the post-season, Holtby turned a corner with the 24 and 29-save shutouts, respectively, rewarding coach Barry Trotz with a 2.16 goals-against average and .922 save percentage to produce the 16 wins needed to secure Lord Stanley’s Cup.
“It took years,” said Holtby, whom Capitals owner Ted Leonsis called the team’s playoff MVP. “Years of heartbreak. Years of breaking things down and trying again, breaking things down and trying again, and this group never gave up and we finally did it.”
— NHL (@NHL) June 9, 2018
It took a complete team effort from top to bottom led by Ovechkin (15-12-27) and Kuznetsov, who led all players in the playoffs with 32 points (12-20). Center Nicklas Backstrom shook off injuries to produce 23 points — including 13 on the power play — while T.J. Oshie chipped in a gritty performance with eight goals and 21 points.
Defensemen John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, Dmitry Orlov, Michal Kempny, Christian Djoos and Matt Niskanen were unheralded if not spectacular shutting down the opposition the likes of Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos and Reilly Smith, who led all Golden Knights players in the playoffs with 21 points.
“We never make it easy, do we?” Niskanen said.
When the Capitals entered The League with the now-defunct Kansas City Scouts in ’74-75, Washington delivered what is widely considered the worst first season for an expansion club winning just eight of 80 games for 21 points.
In contrast, the first-year Vegas Golden Knights went 51-24-7 for 109 points — setting the bar for an expansion club in any sport.
“After you get past the losing here, you can look back and be pretty proud of the group in here and the run we went on,” Golden Knights’ defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “Everyone had us pegged to not make the playoffs. To be standing here today, as bad as it feels, you’ve got to be proud of the group in here.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: The Washington Capitals celebrate their victory over the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 in Game Five of the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final at the T-Mobile Arena on June 7, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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