Washington’s wait is over

Capitals win Cup, Ovechkin gets Conn Smythe

08.06.2018
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Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin is the first Russian ever to captain an NHL club to the Stanley Cup. Photo: Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today Sports / Reuters

After decades of frustration, the Washington Capitals answered their critics with a 4-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday to earn the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. This championship ends a 44-year drought.

Alexander Ovechkin, who received the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, was ecstatic after the Game Five victory. The hulking 32-year-old Muscovite finally exorcised his playoff demons. His open-mouthed roars of jubilation will be the enduring image from the 2018 post-season. Ovechkin becomes the first Russian ever to captain an NHL club to the Cup.

“Finally we got the result and we got the Cup,” Ovechkin said. “We did it. That’s all that matters. It doesn’t matter how we did it. Look at the smiles of our fans and my teammates. It’s unbelievable. I’m just happy.”

It was an unusual post-season, to say the least. The Capitals, who clinched all four series victories on the road, defeated the most successful expansion team the NHL has ever seen in Vegas.

Lars Eller, the first Dane ever to hoist the Cup, scored the winning goal at 12:23 of the third period. That capped off a big hockey year for Denmark, which also hosted the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship for the first time in May.

“It means everything,” said Eller. “You couldn’t write the story better yourself, getting to score the game-winner yourself.”

Ovechkin chipped in two game-winners during these playoffs. Previously, “The Great 8,” a three-time Hart Trophy winner and seven-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner, was often compared unfavourably in terms of being a team player to his nemesis, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

However, this year, Ovechkin showed great leadership with 15 playoff goals. That was the fifth-highest total in NHL history, equalling Crosby’s best (2009) and establishing a new Capitals franchise record (John Druce had 14 in 1990).

In the big picture, it’s an incredible relief for fans in the American capital, where the puck woes have historically been almost as bad as the political gridlock.

Founded in 1975, the Capitals missed the playoffs for the first eight years of their existence. They got swept by the Boston Bruins in their first conference final appearance in 1990, and also got swept by the Detroit Red Wings in their only Stanley Cup final appearance in 1998. Since then, they’d never gotten further than the second round – until 2018.

The Capitals, who earned the President’s Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team in 2010, 2016 and 2017, surprised the pundits by going all the way this year after losing some big-name players in the summer. While the supporting cast has varied over the years, Washington’s core stars have always had the necessary talent, but seemed to struggle psychologically in the crunch.

During the Ovechkin era, they have lost seven Game Sevens and won just four. Beating the Penguins in Game Seven of the second round this year injected the Barry Trotz-coached club with undeniable confidence.

“Besides my wedding day and the birth of my two girls, this is the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had,” said Washington’s T.J. Oshie. “I’ve never seen a team come together like we did here.”

Although the Knights failed to toast their dream season with Stanley Cup champagne, there was no reason for them to be ashamed. GM George McPhee’s team simply ran out of goals and gas in the final against the talented and tenacious Capitals, whom McPhee also largely built during his tenure as Washington's GM through 2014.

The top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith was rendered ineffective in the final. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the backbone of the team and a fan favourite, looked mortal after posting an incredible 94.7 save percentage in the first three round.

The Knights weren’t just less-heralded. Unsurprisingly, they were also far cheaper. In the final, Vegas had no answer for Washington’s four highest-paid forwards – Ovechkin ($9.5 million), Yevgeni Kuznetsov ($7.8 million), Nicklas Backstrom ($6.7 million), and Oshie ($5.75 million) – as quality won out.

“It’s tough,” said Vegas forward Alex Tuch. “We played for each other all year long, and we came up short.”

Still, Sin City will never forget how the Knights marched to the Pacific Division crown with 109 points and then steamrolled Los Angeles, San Jose, and Winnipeg en route to the final. The first major pro team in Las Vegas history gave heart and inspiration to locals who were stunned by October’s mass shooting tragedy.

Beyond Ovechkin’s saga, there were plenty of great individual stories for Washington. Yevgeni Kuznetsov led the playoffs with 32 points. His four-assist outing in the 6-2 win in Game Four tied a Cup final record shared by 11 other players.

Kuznetsov, a 26-year-old centre from Chelyabinsk, became one of just 30 players to score 30 or more points in a single post-season. Pittsburgh’s Yevgeni Malkin holds the record for the most playoff points by a Russian (36, 2009), which is also the seventh-highest total ever. Malkin (2009, 2017) and Sergei Fyodorov are the only other two Russians ever to top the playoffs points race. Edmonton’s Wayne Gretzky holds the playoffs points record (47, 1985).

Capitals goalie Braden Holtby executed a remarkable turnaround. The 2016 Vezina Trophy winner struggled down the stretch and started the playoffs as the backup to Philipp Grubauer. Yet after the German was yanked during a 5-4 overtime loss to the Columbus Jackets in Game Two of the first round, Holtby regained the crease and never surrendered it.

The Lloydminster, Saskatchewan native’s miraculous stick save on Tuch late in Game Two will go down in Washington sports lore. Holtby finished with an excellent 92.2 save percentage and GAA.

“We didn’t get complacent once in this playoff run,” said Holtby. “We kept pushing forward, knowing we could do something special, and we did.”

Meanwhile, Eller wasn’t the only player from a less-renowned hockey nation that celebrated this triumph.

Grubauer became the fourth Cup-winning German after Uwe Krupp (1996), Dennis Seidenberg (2011), and Tom Kuhnhackl (2016, 2017). And although he will not get his name on the Cup, Washington’s Nathan Walker became the first Australian ever to suit up in the NHL post-season when the 24-year-old forward played one game against Pittsburgh, recording an assist. Walker was on the extended 28-man roster for the last game as a healthy scratch and participated in the on-ice celebrations.

“It’s everything,” said Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly, who has been with four different clubs in the last four seasons. “I’ve been dreaming about it since I was a little kid.”

No new members were added to the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club. However, the result gives both Ovechkin (Worlds gold in 2008, 2012, 2014) and Backstrom (Worlds gold in 2006, 2017) a theoretical chance to join the club if either Russia or Sweden wins the 2022 Olympics in Beijing.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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