LAS VEGAS — The group picture had ended and his teammates were starting to scatter, but Alex Ovechkin stuck around for an extra moment of meditation with their prize. Gripping the rim of its ridged bowl, he bent over and peered into the polished silver. Staring back was the reflection of a man, 32 years old with gunmetal hair and a woolen beard, unbroken and unburdened at last. Staring back was a Stanley Cup champion.
There is no telling exactly how long this party will ultimately rage, from the red-clad pilgrims who flocked inside T-Mobile Arena to the thousands flooding downtown D.C. at home. Surely days, possibly weeks, maybe months, depending on how fast liquor stores run dry. There is also no doubt that Thursday ushered the shotgun start for a citywide purge and binge of emotions … in that order. When the Capitals flung their helmets skyward and tore from the bench upon beating the Golden Knights, 4-3, more than four decades of franchise-wide frustration evaporated. Then–mercifully, thankfully, finally–it was time to be free.
So they screamed and sang, hugged and held Lord Stanley aloft, smooching the spots where their names will soon be stamped. Owner Ted Leonsis shuffled around the ice, misty-eyed and snapping selfies to memorialize Washington’s first major pro sports title since 1992. Ovechkin briefly departed for interview obligations but returned wearing center Evgeny Kuznetsov’s sandals, trailing the chalice like a lapdog and joining every photo op he could find. Over by the benches, defenseman Matt Niskanen leaned against the boards and stroked his chin, mulling what the Capitals had surmounted to reach the summit. “Hard to believe,” he says. “Crazy. Crazy. Crazy.”
And yet it makes perfect sense. Hell did not freeze over in Sin City. The better team won because Washington stifled Vegas’ fearsome attack, limiting the Western Conference champions to five even-strength goals across Games 3-5. Because Ovechkin finished an MVP postseason with 15 goals, tied with Sidney Crosby (remember him?) for the most since ‘95-96, including a backdoor bomb on a feed from longtime running mate Nicklas Backstrom in the second period of Game 5.
Because fourth-line forward Devante Smith-Pelly transformed into Bobby Orr, soaring through the air midway through the third period to tie Vegas at 3-3. "Honestly, I hardly remember the goal. It was all so quick. So much was happening. People were saying I was flying." Because Lars Eller pounced onto a loose puck and struck the eventual winner less than three minutes later, a ferocious goal befitting the third-line center nicknamed Tiger. (The origins involve a team-building event at which Eller was asked to act out his spirit animal. "So I had to scream at the top of my lungs," he says.) Because the Capitals faced deficits during all four playoff series and become only the third ever to clinch each on the road.
Because it was easy to believe in each other.
“There was something special about that group,” says assistant Blaine Forsythe, the longest-tenured member of the coaching staff at a dozen years. “Guys had enough of going through what we went through. The energy was completely different. It completely changed.”
The road was indeed paved with potholes at first. External expectations were low and internal morale was lower when the Capitals reported for camp last fall, still wounded by another second-round heartbreaker against Pittsburgh and the predictable roster exodus that followed. They welcomed rookies into the lineup like winger Jakub Vrana, who overcame a healthy scratch against Columbus in the first round to sizzle the opening salvo past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury in the second period of Game 5. They endured uncertainty behind the bench–coach Barry Trotz still does not have a contract for next year, despite assurances from GM Brian MacLellan of an open invitation–and labored to a 10-9-1 record by mid-November. Asked whether he imagined this celebratory scene then, Backstrom replies, “No. But now I do.”
Yes, it was all real. The fans pressed against the glass, chanting, "C-A-P-S! CAPS! CAPS! CAPS!" The baseball caps and towels emblazoned with STANLEY CUP 2018 CHAMPIONS. The ice buckets stocked with brut champagne and light beer, the ballroom awaiting their after-party at the Mandarin Oriental. The smile plastered across the face of Trotz, fourth all-time in NHL wins but absent a title until now. The tears shed as winger T.J. Oshie discussed his father Tim, who is battling Alzheimer’s but will, Oshie says, surely remember this. The tight embrace shared by Backstrom and Ovechkin after the final horn, a deep gaze into a pair of liberated souls.
“It’s just a relief,” Backstrom says, quickly recalibrating. “It’s just the greatest feeling of all-time.”
It is the feeling of old labels going extinct, of new legacies being written, of the delirium overtaking the District thousands of miles away. “This was for our fans, for the love, for the patience, for the support,” Leonsis said. “I can’t wait for the next week to be back home and bask in the joy.” It is what Ovechkin surely felt as he stood by the visiting bench door, hollering at teammates to come along for more private festivities: “Let’s go to locker room!”
Satisfied that everyone had been successfully corralled, Ovechkin began to head down the tunnel before turning back for one more glimpse at the ice. Lifting the Stanley Cup above his shoulders, he planted another kiss onto its side. “Thank you, Vegas,” he said, the sweet words of someone who must wait no more.