Much as they’d done throughout the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Devante Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller came up big in big moments for the Washington Capitals.
The pair scored a goal apiece in the third period, lifting the Capitals to a 4-3 Game 5 win over the Vegas Golden Knights to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
"When they made that game tied, I knew we just have to be patient, have to wait for our chance," Evgeny Kuznetsov said of Eller's goal. "As soon as we got that chance we scored and we defend well. It feels unbelievable."
Despite the goal-fest that began in the second period, it took the two teams some time to get things going—even with the Cup in the building. Once they did, however, they traded blows like heavyweight boxers. A total of five goals were scored in the second period, four of which came within a span of just over six minutes.
Jakub Vrana started it all with a breakaway snipe over Marc-Andre Fleury’s glove. Then, on a night when the Golden Knights needed it most, the hockey gods granted Vegas multiple spells of puck luck. Nate Schmidt’s intended pass went off Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen’s skate and through Braden Holtby’s five-hole.
Caps forward Alex Ovechkin, who was once again all over the ice in Game 5, didn’t need any luck on his tally. It came on the power play, on a saucy cross-ice pass from Nicklas Backstrom. Ovi powered his shot past Fleury from the bottom of the circle for his franchise-record 15th goal of the postseason, becoming the first player to score 15 times in a playoff run since 2009.
Vegas followed up with another wacky one when Caps defenseman Christian Djoos pushed David Perron into the Washington net as the two battled for position near Holtby. Meanwhile, Colin Miller fired a pass to Tomas Tatar, who redirected it toward the net. Tatar’s attempt ended up hitting Perron as both he and the puck crossed the goal line. The play was reviewed for potential goalie interference, but it was ruled a good goal and was credited to Perron.
“I felt the puck, and then when I end up in the net, I saw it fall between my legs,” Perron told Sportsnet’s Scott Oake during the second intermission. “Obviously with all the rules going on, you hope it’s a good goal. It was a good battle in front and he pushed me in the net. I’m glad it went in.”
Like Ovechkin with his, Vegas didn’t need luck with its third goal of the game. Also mirroring Ovi, the Golden Knights simply needed a power play. Shea Theodore pumped a shot on Holtby as time dwindled in the second. Alex Tuch corralled the rebound and shoveled it over to Riley Smith, who flicked it into a wide-open net.
A brawl immediately ensued after Smith’s goal. Players toppled over each other, tackled each other and surely talked plenty of smack. With just 28 seconds left in the middle frame, both the goal and the extracurricular activities served to signify what was to come in the third. Only it would be the Caps, not the Golden Knights, to bring that energy to the final period.
"In between the second and third, we had the same feeling in our locker room," Holtby told Oake. :No one was panicking, everyone was confident. I think we knew we could pick it up a level and we did."
It didn’t come as quickly as they’d like, but the Capitals did eventually find an equalizer with Smith-Pelly coming up with yet another huge goal. He drove by the net and was in the right place at the right time as Brooks Orpik brilliantly held the blue line and fired it toward the net. Smith-Pelly stopped the puck with his skate and worked it to his forehand just in time, squeezing it between the post and Fleury’s left pad as he tumbled to the ice. It marked goals in three straight games for Smith-Pelly.
The Caps didn’t waste much time for their second of the period. Brett Connolly ripped a shot from the slot, and Fleury thought he had it trapped. He didn’t, and Eller found it sitting on the doorstep. It might have been one of the easiest goals of his career, but it was certainly the biggest. His tally gave Washington a 4-3 lead with 6:52 remaining. His friends and family in his native Denmark must’ve been watching happily near 5 a.m. local time as the goal made Eller the first Danish player in NHL history to hoist the Cup.
Unsurprisingly, the Golden Knights controlled the final minutes of play as they tried everything to equalize. In the end, Vegas simply ran out of magic and ran into a better team.
Ovechkin, the greatest goal scorer of his generation, had long been hampered by the fact that he’d never hoisted the Cup. He put those demons to rest and won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the most valuable player of the postseason in the process. Seen time and time again getting giddy and jumping for joy on the bench all series long, Ovechkin screamed in elation and relief when he finally lifted the Cup over his head.
"To watch Ovi lift that Cup and take it away," forward Jay Beagle—who became the first player to win an ECHL, AHL and NHL title—told NBC's Pierre McGuire, "its been a long time and a lot of hard work. This is something that you dream about as kids, and its an incredible feeling."
HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT
It wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t anything close to being a play of the year, but it was the goal that ended 40-plus years of hockey frustration and sorrow in the nation’s capital. Take it away, Lars Eller.
1. Alex Ovechkin, WSH — It wasn’t about his shots on net, hit total or even his goal. It was about his presence on the ice, his contagious energy on the bench and his ability to finally get over the top and win the first championship of his NHL career.
2. Devante Smith-Pelly, WSH — Next to Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, Smith-Pelly was one of Washington’s most important forwards during the latter portion of this series. His goal ignited the Caps' flurry that led to Eller’s Cup clincher.
3. Nicklas Backstrom, WSH — The assist on Ovechkin’s goal was one of the nicest passes seen in this postseason. Backstrom added four takeaways and played as well as you’d like your No. 2 center to play in a championship-clinching win.