WASHINGTON, D.C. — They can see the silver now, three-feet tall and shining bright. It is creeping into their minds, worming through their dreams, closer than ever before. Here stand the Washington Capitals, slayers of playoff demons and healers of crushed souls, one victory from their first Stanley Cup with three chances at hoisting history. How could they not entertain that image as it barrels closer and closer toward reality? “Oh, yeah, I mean, you try not to,” stammered winger Brett Connolly, a slight glint spread across his face. “You’d be a liar to say it hasn’t yet.”
They can hear the death rattle of the Vegas Golden Knights, which apparently sounds like a puck striking against the goalpost given Monday night’s 6-2 bludgeoning at Capital One Arena. PING! There was Alex Tuch during the second shift of Game 4, sending a no-look pass that skittered through traffic and met iron. PING! There was James Neal moments later, misfiring onto a yawning net with goalie Braden Holtby watching helplessly nearby and … PING! … defenseman Brayden McNabb’s second-period blast that seared past Holtby, glove side.
Hockey? Oh, yes.
“Every year teams get knocked out based on one bounce,” Capitals winger Tom Wilson said.
They can feel this town ripping off its hinges over a 3-1 Stanley Cup Final lead, from the thousands of fans whose singsong serenades eventually settled on a thundering rendition of “WE! WANT! THE! CUP!” to the downtown streets that pulsed with equal parts red sweaters and delirium. “We’re trying to write our own story here and it seems like the rest of the city is onboard with that,” said T.J. Oshie, who put Washington ahead in the first period with a footsie power-play goal that looked more Messi than Messier. “There’s been heartbreak here. We know that. But I think that’s scarred us over and made us stronger for it. We’ll keep pressing on, keep working and try to do something cool.”
They can taste blood. Not literal plasma, per se, even though the broken nose that defenseman Colin Miller suffered on a third-period check from Oshie might hint otherwise. But metaphorical blood, spilled from a Vegas team facing its biggest adversity of an expansion season that probably should’ve contained far more of the stuff. The Golden Knights landed in Washington with a split series and left one loss from elimination, still unable to solve the Capitals’ thorny neutral-zone forecheck and the bearded brick wall behind it (Holtby made 28 saves), still searching for some secondary scoring from a bottom-six forwards corps that has generated one total goal over the past three games.
They can even smell the champagne, corked for now but chilled upon arrival at T-Mobile Arena for Game 5 on Thursday. Forty-three years have passed since the late Abe Pollin delivered an NHL franchise to the District, a capital vision that was promptly rewarded by what still stands as the worst season ever. Until this spring, the Capitals had made exactly one Stanley Cup Final, won zero games and accumulated enough playoff misfortune to make Charlie Brown feel like a lottery winner. But four decades of grief has flipped over four days. Not an ounce of anxiety existed at Capital One Arena, where workers laid towels over seats that spelled out "BELIEVE"—with the Stanley Cup in place of the I—and fans started plotting parade routes in their head. Not with six different goal-scorers supporting another stingy defensive performance. Not with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov running neck and neck for the Conn Smythe Trophy. Not with the silver shining so close in sight.
“That’s what you use as motivation,” said Wilson, the beneficiary of a pinhole pass from Kuznetsov that put the Capitals ahead 2-0 in the first period. “It’s been there the whole playoffs. You use it for emotion. You use it to drive you forward. You don’t think too far ahead. That’s what you’re playing for. It’s there the whole playoffs.”
As midnight approached, Washington general manager Brian MacLellan made his usual descent in the press box elevator. Winding through the corridor, he bid goodnight to ushers like he does every game, perhaps for the last time if Oshie is correct and the Capitals indeed write their own story. A stiff test surely awaits along the Strip, where the Golden Knights return after dropping three straight for the first time since Nov. 28-Dec. 1, but it was hard not to let the mind wander. Down the hall from the home dressing room, a member of the arena ice crew approached MacLellan and extended a hand. “Congratulations,” he said.
MacLellan nodded and muttered some thanks without breaking stride, always moving forward, only a little ways left to go.