LAS VEGAS – The Washington Capitals spent the first 43 years of their existence showing the hockey world what they couldn’t do. Couldn’t shoot straight in their first season en route to establishing themselves as the worst team in NHL history. Couldn’t beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. Couldn’t get out of the second round. Couldn’t translate great regular seasons into playoff success. Couldn’t close out playoff series. And could not, for the life of them, ever win the Stanley Cup.
Until now, a year when the ubiquitous championship window was supposed to have been slammed shut. The Washington Capitals are the 2018 playoff champions and will be the first team on the newly minted bottom ring of the Stanley Cup. Let that sink in for a minute. Let it roll off the tongue. With their 4-3 win in Game 5 of the final against the most likely opponent in league history, the Loveable Losers finally got it done.
As Capitals coach Barry Trotz put it before the final, “This is probably one of the least likely teams to have success.” And he’s right. This team is not the best one the Capitals have had in the Alex Ovechkin era. But it was the best fit, the best collection of personalities, the one most equipped to succeed where all the others had failed. And in doing so, the Capitals finally proved what they could do.
They could finally defeat the Pittsburgh Penguins, a demon-exorcising exercise that was absolutely crucial to them ever winning a Stanley Cup. They could close out series, four of them in a row. And most of all, they could stare playoff adversity down in the face and overcome it. Since the NHL went to a three-round playoff format following expansion in 1967-68, only two teams in league history have won the Stanley Cup after trailing at one point in each series. The first was the 1991 Penguins. The second was the 2018 Capitals.
It was only fitting that one of the goals in the game would be scored by Ovechkin from his usual spot on the power play. There has not been a player more productive from that area of the ice in NHL history and not a player who deserved to win a Stanley Cup more than the player they now call ‘O’. (Apparently Ovie has fallen by the wayside somewhere.) Ovechkin is the first Russian-born captain in NHL history to lead his team to a Stanley Cup and just the second to claim the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. Led by Ovechkin, who was as animated and emotional as he’s been since his rookie season, the Capitals were the best team on the planet from the time they went down 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round. Much of that was because of Ovechkin, who dragged the rest of the Capitals into the fight and led in both spirit and actions.
It may not be fair, but Ovechkin has cemented his legacy as an all-time great player. The fall guy for the Capitals when they could not win became the biggest hero when they did. He will now have his name on the Stanley Cup and filled a gaping hole in his career resume. And the fact that he was the driving force behind the victory makes it all the more special. Ray Bourque could never lead the Boston Bruins to the promised land, nor could Denis Savard do it with the Chicago Blackhawks nor Brett Hull with the St. Louis Blues nor Dominik Hasek with the Buffalo Sabres. All of them did it as secondary players with other teams.
As for the Golden Knights, the greatest expansion team in NHL history was an incredibly worthy opponent, but in the end it was no match for a team with great players firing on all cylinders. The Golden Knights, who looked so dominant through the regular season and the first three rounds of the playoffs, ran into a juggernaut that choked off their creativity, forced them to play a game that they weren’t accustomed to playing and dominated them physically.
There is no shame in that. And even though very good days lay ahead for the Golden Knights, even they will be shaking their heads about this missed opportunity. There seems to be this notion that a team has to lose before it can win – and the Capitals certainly did nothing to disprove that – but even if you’re an expansion team that has overachieved, you never know when or if you’ll ever be back again.
Just ask the Washington Capitals, who took the art of losing to unprecedented levels before tonight. They are Loveable Losers no more. Nobody knows how the Capitals will look next season. Defenseman John Carlson will likely be playing somewhere else. Barry Trotz may pull and Al MacNeil/Mike Keenan and bolt before the engraver has a chance to etch his name on Stanley. Devante Smith-Pelly has already said he likely won’t go to the White House. It will be interesting to see whether any of his teammates follow suit.
But that’s all fodder for the future. What matters is the present and that the Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions.
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