Tampa: More than three minutes remained in the game, but Alex Ovechkin was on the bench, his gap-tooth smile unmistakable and wide. He raised both arms and hugged whoever was next to him. This Game 7 was a blowout, and he knew the history that had plagued him and his team was about to change.
Then 7.3 seconds remained, and Ovechkin stood in front of his bench and was wrapped in a few more embraces. Then time finally ran out, and Ovechkin hopped off the bench and kicked up a leg before he was flanked by teammates Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie.
“You don’t even have to say so much, you just have to look at each other,” Backstrom said. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Finally, Ovechkin grabbed the Prince of Wales Trophy for the Eastern Conference champions, unafraid of the superstition about not touching it maybe because this team has already overcome so many odds. With the 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals, Washington will play the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup finals starting Monday in Nevada.
“Emotions?” Ovechkin said. “We’re going to the Stanley Cup final. I think everybody happy, but we still have not finished. Not done yet, you know what I mean? I’m kind of emotional right now. It’s hard to explain.”
He struggled to collect his thoughts, smiling and shaking his head. Ovechkin then turned to goaltender Braden Holtby for help verbalising the moment. Holtby smiled back at him. “You’re doing great, babe,” he told him.
“Finally, we what we want,” Ovechkin continued.
As Backstrom said earlier, “It only took 11 years.”
The Capitals won this Game 7 with two goals from Andre Burakovsky, the inconsistent young winger who had been scratched just games earlier in this series and then admitted to needing to see a sports psychologist this season because he’s often too hard on himself. They won Game 7 with Holtby pitching a second straight shutout, his only two shutouts of the season, after the goaltender had lost the starting job going into the playoffs. Washington won Game 7 with Ovechkin, the captain whose career has been associated with individual greatness but no significant team success.
The Capitals have taken their hits and then hit right back all season, and perhaps no three players showed that better than the three who starred Wednesday night.
“I saw it all,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I saw it first shift. Ovi’s been on a mission.”
It took just 62 seconds for Ovechkin to make his mark. On his first shift, centre Evgeny Kuznetsov flicked a pass to him at the top of the left face off circle, and Ovechkin one-timed it, a fluttering, knuckling puck that got past Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Ovechkin’s career has been a highlight reel of laser shots such as that one but also pained expressions in May.
The Capitals saw a more determined Ovechkin when he returned to Washington two weeks before the start of training camp, seemingly more dedicated to his off-season training. Then he started his assault on the NHL with a league-leading 49 goals. Earlier in this series, Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said he got the sense Ovechkin was taking out 13 years of frustration on one postseason. His first-period goal marked his 12th of these playoffs.
“There were a lot of people doubting if he still had what it took,” Trotz said. “The great players take exception to that ... He said, ‘I’m going to show you I’m still a great player.’ And he did.”
Just as the Capitals seemed on the brink of losing of losing that one-goal lead to start the second period, enter Lars Eller’s chip into the offensive zone bounced off Lightning defenceman Dan Girardi, who had trouble corralling the puck. Burakovsky swiped it from him, dangled around him and then found the small hole between Vasilevskiy’s elbow and pad to extend the Capitals’ lead. That was just the team’s second shot of the frame. All the while, Ovechkin was vocal on the bench, standing and yelling down the length of it.
When Burakovsky scored his second goal of the period, collecting John Carlson’s bank pass off the boards before placing a shot through Vasilevskiy’s legs, Ovechkin was waiting to bump gloved fists with him on the bench. “[Expletive] right, baby,” he yelled with a grin.
“And then he said, ‘Keep your shifts down a little bit,’ so he was joking a little bit, too,” Burakovsky said.
Devante Smith-Pelly had been knocked out for the game after taking a hit from Lightning defenceman Anton Stralman. Then Capitals blue-liner Brooks Orpik had to be helped off the ice after he was boarded by Cedric Paquette. But as has become this Washington team’s identity, the Capitals embraced the adversity and pushed through it.
Washington had flirted with familiar disaster earlier in the series, losing three straight after winning the first two games of the series on the road, only to stomp on its own franchise narrative again. It’s poetic the Capitals did it in a Game 7. More than a year ago, they deflated in a decisive seventh contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, shut out in a 2-0 loss. That marked the end of what General Manager Brian MacLellan had called a “two-year window” with one of the most talented rosters in the organisation’s history.
The heartbreak from yet another early exit, especially with a team that loaded, carried over into this season, when Trotz wisely gave his team room to continue grieving. On Wednesday, he helped them feel loose, continuing a road superstition before morning skates by taking a solo lap around the ice as players smacked their sticks against the boards to cheer him on. An off-season with the Vegas expansion draft and salary-cap constraints weakened the roster, veteran and skilled players replaced with rookies and inexpensive free agent additions.
Defenceman Matt Niskanen recalled telling his wife before the season this team wasn’t as good on paper, “but watch, this will be the year that we do something.”
“I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win,” Holtby said. “Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill or been better on paper or whatever. But this team, everyone knows their role and everyone wants to pitch in and everyone is comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident and confident in each other. We don’t get down on each other. It’s a strong group and that’s extremely hard to come by and something that we’re going need to have going forward to be our best and be a strong team.”
The new additions brought growing pains, but they also didn’t have the same “baggage,” as veteran centre Jay Beagle put it, as the longtime Capitals who had endured multiple playoff disappointments. But ultimately, it was on Washington’s longest-tenured players to be the difference.
Ovechkin didn’t shy away from the enormity of the moment. His own legacy has an asterisk next to it: one of the greatest players the NHL has ever seen but still not a champion.
“Of course, you have dreams, you have thoughts,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. “Right now, you in this position, you just don’t want to give up this opportunity.”
He added that Game 7 was “the biggest game in our life, maybe.”
Ovechkin then ensured bigger games are to come.
— Washington Post