For the first time in the 44 year history of the franchise, the Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup Champions.
After allowing a late second-period goal to the Golden Knights’ Reilly Smith, the Capitals, leading the series 3-1, entered the third period trailing 3-2 on the road in Vegas. However, two goals in the third from Devante Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller just two minutes and 31 seconds apart midway through the third period gave the Capitals a lead they would not relinquish.
Despite a late surge from the Golden Knights, the Capitals held on to a 4-3 lead to win the series in five games.
“It’s just unbelievable,” said Ovechkin followed by a long pause and look of disbelief. “I don’t know what to say, it’s just unbelievable. I’m so happy. I’m probably the happiest… I’m so happy for my teammates and our fans watching back in Washington D.C. It’s unbelievable.”
What IS believable is that Alex Ovechkin’s fingerprints were all over this improbable Cup run for the Capitals. Ovechkin gave the Capitals a 2-1 lead in the second with a power-play goal which added to his gaudy scoring numbers this postseason. His 15 goals set a franchise record. He added 12 assists to total 27 points. Fittingly, Ovechkin was named the Conn Smythe Award winner as the most valuable player in the Finals. Evgeny Kuznetsov finished a close second as he led all players with 32 points during the postseason.
Ovechkin wasn’t the only Capitals player who had been waiting a long time for this moment. Nicklas Backstrom, a 10-year veteran, has spent his entire career with the Capitals. Only Ovechkin, 14 years, has been with the team longer. Backstrom was third on the team with 22 points (5 goals and 17 assists).
It’s ironic that the year that no one picked the Capitals was the year they finally broke through. Often they entered the postseasons with high aspirations. Usually as the top seed. However, they started to build a reputation as a team that just couldn’t get over the hump. That ‘hump’ often came in the form of the Pittsburgh Penguins, among others, but the Penguins often stood in the way of the Capitals championship dreams. Not this year.
The Capitals got over that obstacle in six games during the second round. Ending a two-year run as Stanley Cup Champions for the Penguins. This was after a first-round series which saw them quickly fall behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Next was the top-seeded Lightning which they eliminated in a thrilling seven-game series. Another series they clinched on the road. Even entering the Finals, they were not the top story. How could they be when they were going up against an expansion team who everyone predicted would finish at the bottom of the standings? In the end, it really didn’t matter. “We did it,” Ovechkin said.
“That’s all that matters. Look at the smiles on my teammates. This is something you’ll never forget. This moment, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’m so happy. It’s unbelievable.”
Another validation of sorts for a lifelong Capital came from goaltender Braden Holtby. Holtby, who was inconsistent at best during the season watched as Philip Grubauer started the playoffs for the Capitals. A decision made by soon-to-be free agent head coach, Barry Trotz. However, once inserted back into the lineup, Holtby ran with it. He finished 16-7 with a .922 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average. He was particularly impressive as he rallied the Capitals from a 3-2 series deficit with back-to-back shutouts of the potent Tampa Bay Lighting.
Ahead for the Capitals’ players is a continuous celebration with the Cup. Both near and far. When the puck drops again, the target will be squarely on their back once again. This time for good reason. But for now, it’s all about relishing the moment.
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For the Golden Knights, who will be left wondering “what if?” all summer, there is no way to look at this season and not consider it an extraordinary success. As mentioned before, most predicted the Golden Knights to stumble out of the gate like most expansion teams do. However, from start-to-finish, they played like they belonged the entire time. They ultimately became the third team in NHL history to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in their first year.
In a very short period of time, the Golden Knights have transformed Vegas into a true hockey city. Never more evident than the booing of Gary Bettman when he presented both the Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup. It’s hard to imagine that the Stanely Cup would be presented in Vegas at the T-Mobile Arena last October when the season began. So, despite falling just short of the Stanley Cup, the Golden Knights have truly built a hockey foundation in Vegas.