I have suffered through a decade of the lowest lows imaginable in D.C. hockey. Every year they told me “this is the year”. It never was. All those years of curling up into the fetal position trying to convince myself that it is just a game, when I knew that it is not, had been leading to this moment. The Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup Champions!
“F**king rights.” Nicklas Backstrom takes the Stanley Cup from Alexander Ovechkin and they go for a skate. pic.twitter.com/Qp8G74QDbC
— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) June 8, 2018
It all started in game 2 in D.C. the Capitals had just dropped the first two games at home in overtime in round 1 to the Columbus Blue Jackets and I took off my jersey and fastballed into my closet, declaring that I was no longer a hockey fan. It looked to be another year of heartbreak. After that 2nd overtime defeat, Alex Ovechkin said in an interview, “It’s going to be fun when we bounce back and tie the series and play game 5 at home.” Nothing I knew as a Capitals fan gave me any reason to believe him. The next game, game 3 in Columbus went to double overtime and ended with Lars Eller scoring a game winner on a dirty deflected goal. That goal will go down as the most important goal in franchise history. If that puck does not take a crazy bounce off of a Blue Jacket leg and skidder in to the net, the Caps may go down 0-3 in the series and most likely get swept. From there, the Caps never looked back, they went on to win 3 straight and advance to face their old nemesis, The Pittsburgh Penguins.
It felt all too familiar, Caps vs Pens, in the second round. Ovi vs Sid the Kid, Backstrom vs Malkin. These foes had met 3 times in the past 9 postseasons, all 3 times the Penguins would get the best of the Caps and would eventually go onto lift the cup. Game 1 played out as any Caps – Penguins games do, the Caps played very well, and still lost 3-2 on a couple of deflected goals. They came out firing in games 2, and 3 and won them both. Something felt different, the team looked calm, relaxed, and for the first time in years you could feel something you’d never felt before, the Caps were having fun. Fun has been a foreign concept to both the players and fans who rock the red. For years we sat down to watch the Caps play in the postseason and waited patiently for them to break our hearts. But finally, the Caps would go on to win the series on a Kuznetsov OT goal in game 6 in Pittsburgh. Relief. Euphoria. As John Walton said on the D.C. radio broadcast, “the demons have been exercised”. The Caps celebrated as if they won The Super Bowl, and for just a night we got to block out the thought off having to win another 1, or even 2 more series.
At this point, we felt it. We had faced adversity, and had not yet let it defeat us. The Caps went into their first conference final in two decades with wind in their sails. Facing off against the Presidents Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning, it was a battle of opposites. The high flying offensive prowess of the Lightning and the physical, checking style of the Capitals. The Caps went into Tampa in games 1 and 2 and dominated, winning by a combined score of 10-4. Just like that, they were heading back to D.C. with a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Finals. Time to start pinching yourself. Capital One Arena was rocking for game 3. Then it happened. The Caps pulled a Caps, and lost 3 straight games. That’s right, I remember this feeling, it’s horrible but at least it’s familiar. Just like that, I was back to square one, vowing to never watch hockey again. I should have known better. Facing elimination for the first time in this postseason, the Caps dominated their way to a 3-0 game 6 win to take the series back to Tampa for game 7. The rollercoaster continued, and it was back to believing again. Braden Holtby was playing lights out in goal, Ovechkin was a man on a mission. The Caps rode that wave all the way into game 7 in Tampa where they pitched another shutout and won 4-0. Just like that, the Washington Capitals were headed to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The Cup Finals
It seemed unfathomable… the Washington Capitals were playing in the Stanley Cup Finals against an expansion team from Vegas. That can’t be right. Game 1 went exactly the way Caps did not want it to. They lost in a fast paced 6-4 track meet. If the Caps were going to win it was going to be 2-1, 3-2. Slow, physical, jam the puck in the net. Right on cue, they won game 2 in a tight 3-2 game. From there, it never seemed to be in doubt. The Caps were going to win this series and the cup. They would go on to win 3 straight and lift the Cup in Vegas after an extremely hard fought 4-3 victory. They did it. The decades of heartbreak, and the rollercoaster of optimism to depression, optimism to depression, optimism to depression… they were worth this moment.
There were so many key factors that lead to this moment. Let’s take a look at a couple of those.
Out of all the Capital’s rosters in the Alex Ovechkin era, this one was one of the least talented. Coming out of an offseason where they lost so many key players, Justin Williams, Karl Alzner, Marcus Johansson. On top of that they didn’t add much, the brightest addition was Devante Smith-Pelly from the Devils who would be making a league minimum salary and would not even be a guaranteed skater night in and night out. So how did this happen? Everything had to come together all at once for this team. Evgeny Kuznetsov finally showed his true talent by putting up 12 goals and 20 assists in the playoffs. Alex Ovechkin emerged as the leader he always needed to be. He defended, blocked shots, put his body on the line left and right. He was no longer the man that just stood at the blue line waiting for a teammate to feed him the puck. Braden Holtby finally showed up in the playoffs and single handedly won the Caps 4 games in the postseason, as well as making the greatest and most important save in Capitals history in game 2 against Vegas.
Check out the save of the century from Braden Holtby
— NBC Sports Capitals (@NBCSCapitals) May 31, 2018
The 3rd and 4th lines chipped in with goals. 2 of the 4 goals in the final game in Vegas came from the bottom two lines. The most important thing for this team, that had never been prevalent before, was that they were calm and having fun. No amount of adversity or pressure could get to them, this really showed as they clinched every series on the road. It just looked as if you could throw anything at this group of players, they would absorb it and use it as motivation.
The only way this team, this group of players, were going to win was if all of those factors came together at once, and they did. So for the first time in franchise history, the Washington Capitals are champions!
This is what sports are all about… Alex Ovechkin: A 32-year-old kid finally living his dream. pic.twitter.com/iIaC6NnQju
— Brandon Saho (@BrandonSaho) June 8, 2018