Now that the dust has settled and all the trash is being cleaned up along the Portrait Gallery and all of Chinatown, Washington D.C. can finally exhale after 26 years of holding their breath and call themselves Champions in the major sporting landscape. Many will say that this should have happened earlier. Many will say that this is still one in the tens of others that they’ll still have to catch up to reaching to call themselves a real sports town. They all can shove it for all I care.
No one will ever take these moments away. No one will ever remember the doubts that were there for this particular hockey team months and years ago. Most importantly, everyone and their Mama can stop remembering that this city was in the middle of one of the worst sporting runs for this generation. Even D.C. United and the Washington Mystics were a part of this disease!
But before we can basque in the glory that so many other regions experience as if it can be eaten for desert, we do forget those lasting tensions. The two key moments were when Reilly Smith gave Vegas a 3-2 lead just before the end of the second period. This came after a tense first period where no goals were scored, but Washington looked slightly better than the two teams. Even as the second period began, Washington’s power play was looking as crisp as it has been all postseason, but they just couldn’t get the one shot that will get through Marc-Andre Fleury. Then, Jakub Vrana took advantage of a bad pinch by Deryk Engelland and used his jet shoes to get a one-on-none breakaway and then beat Fleury high glove side to put the Caps on the board first.
However, Vegas and Washington went on to trade goals that had great potential to create so many narratives in the folkore of Washington Capitals history. The first was a Nate Schmidt (yes, THAT Nate Schmidt) shot that went off a Washington Capitals skate. The next was a “captain’s goal” by Alex Ovechkin on the power play off of a trademark thread-the-needle saucer pass by Nicklas Backstrom that looks so ho-hum for Caps fans who have seen it for years but so mindbending to everyone else around the world. Afterwards, Vegas scored off of a David Perron deflection that could have been called goaltender interference because the former Pittsburgh Penguin (right, of course it’s only a coincidence. Sigh!) kicked Braden Holtby’s right leg off with his skate blade. Unfortunately, the referees were correct in calling it a good goal after it was obvious that Christian Djoos shoved Perron to create the goaltender interference. But never ever EVER forget that referees have called goaltender interference on these plays before, so all of hockey better understand that their sport is in jeopardy if they can’t decide what is clear and concise about these situations.
Lastly, we’ve got the Smith goal. Even when the game was tied, Washington looked to be reasserting their dominance in the game after being bombarded by two goals that usually cripple them in any typical Capitals playoff game. Then, Michal Kempny lazily passed the puck over to Dmitri Orlov, who was forced to make a rash decision as a result of Vegas’ increasingly difficult forecheck. The same forecheck that was so present all Conference Finals was finally beginning to look consistent for the first time since Game 1 of the Cup Final. After Orlov coughed up the puck in his own zone, Alex Ovechkin almost had no choice but to trip up William Karlsson to avoid him receiving a pass that absolutely would have led to a quality shot. As a result of the ensuing power play, Shea Theodore put in a shot from the point that forced a Holtby rebound, which led to one of the more beautiful passes you will see by Alex Tuch that created a yawning net for Smith to shoot into.
This was not Holtby’s night. His rebound control was not fully there and he was allowing tip play shots to intimidate him just a little too much to everyone’s liking. He would finish the day stopping just 28 of 31 shots while his 92.2% save percentage and 63.6% quality start percentage this postseason continued to be below his usual norms, as was the case all regular season. Whether he can carry a team on his back again ala 2014-15 to 2016-17 is a discussion for another season, but it should be greatly admired for where he started this postseason and where he finished it up. That in itself is what will put him in the pantheon of D.C. Sports lore.
As the third period started, you would have thought that Vegas would finally be able to put the kill shot on the Capitals. They were at home (7-1 record at T-Mobile Arena before the Cup Final) and were finally getting all the breaks they needed. Along with that, Vegas’ style of play was dicating how the rest of the game was playing out. Instead, Washington, who had the slight edge in shot attempts heading into the final frame (27-25 at even strength), turned the screw and got back to playing their simple net crashing game.
First, Devante Smith-Pelly applied an effective hit on the forcheck to force Vegas to cough the puck up to Michal Kempny on the point. After the former Blackhawk made such a critical error that led to the Smith tally, he redeemed himself by throwing the puck to the net. But instead of hitting Fleury, the puck bounced off an attempted screen by Smith-Pelly, but he was wide open to allow him to corral said puck to his stick and bury it into the back of the net to tie things up.
Next, Andre Burakovsky was beginning to dictate things with shots off of the right half-wall. They may have looked innocent, but they ended up becoming the prequel to what was to come. While on the cycle, Burakovsky passed it to Brett Connolly, who threw a shot from the same right half-wall towards Fleury. Visually, you would have thought a whistle should have been blown seconds ago. Little did the world know that the puck was actually sitting BEHIND Fleury’s pads and only Lars Eller was able to notice. The man who was such a critical figure to Washington’s success this postseason by flipping between second and third line center, especially when Backstrom was hurt retrieved that biscuit and pulled off the most legendary goal in Capitals history.
When it was all said and done, the Capitals out-attempted Vegas 18-12 from the start of the third up until that Eller goal. After Fleury’s legend seemed to have grown another notch last night, the three-time Stanley Cup champion would leave these finals with just an 85.7% save percentage. This all comes after four shutouts and a 94.7% save percentage in the previous three playoff rounds. Hockey is just downright stupid sometimes.
Speaking of stupid, that goal came with 7:37 left in the game, so the Capitals had to find a way to kill the game off. Surely enough, the Golden Knights had 10 of the last 11 shot attempts of the game, including the situations where Fluery had to leave for the extra attacker. Fortunately, as has been the case all series, Washington’s shot quality was more superior to Vegas’ and that was enough to seal things off. But before the game was over, the second key moment happened. As the game clock was counting down to about 1:50 to go, it just stopped running.
Of all my years of watching and playing sports, teams that spend too much time complaining about the referees, even if they are correcr to do so so vocally, always tend to be the ones on the losing end. Fairly or not, the best teams of all-time almost seem to shake these horrifying calls like water off of a camel’s back and play on. In previous years, the Capitals and their entire fan base would be so rattled by the spontenaety that Vegas surely would have gotten the tying goal, exactly like Game 5 of the 2012 Rangers series. Instead, Jay Beagle what seemed like every single defensive zone faceoff and Vegas couldn’t get any good shot off on the 6-on-5. No controversy. Just a 26-year curse being removed from its roots.
It’s been explained one too many times how THIS Capitals team became champions. They were the first Conference Finals team, let alone Stanley Cup Champions to go from under 50% puck possession to above 50% puck possession (that final number became 50.3%). Michal Kempny became the greatest trade deadline acquisition in team history. Barry Trotz trusted the kids this postseason for the first time in his entire coaching tenure. Braden Holtby progressed to the mean. Alex Ovechkin cemented his place as the greatest athlete this city has ever had besides Walter Johnson and maybe Sammy Baugh. Add another title or break another couple of records and he leapfrogs both.
However, some will say the Capitals took advantage of a league that may not have any team good enough to make a push towards a dynasty like Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles and Detroit have done in the salary cap era. The sport has also become as parity filled as its ever been, so taking advantage of just shear puck luck and generating better shot quality may now be the name of the game. With opposing goalies only having a 91.2% save percentage, and by maintaining a 14.9-12.1 expected goals scoreline in the Cup Final, that is certainly what Washington did.
I can not state enough how emotional it was to have “Titan Spirit” blare out Gary Bettman and be a part of the Stanley Cup Trophy presentation. And when it was finally time for Alex Ovechkin to lift it, only his screams that released 13 years of pain reverberated more. I just don’t know what to tell you if you can’t shed tears for such a poetic moment, especially when it was T.J. Oshie’s turn to hit the mic. And with that, Backstrom and Ovi will forever be inseparable for the rest of their playing careers and an entire city and their long suffering fanbase will never forget what this team accomplished.