A Career Long Goal Achieved
The Washington Capitals have been known for collapsing. Our own Pat Langdon and Danny Boyce even had this exchange on April 17, the night of Game 3 of Washington’s first round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets with the Capitals down two games to none:
Pat: And I believe that Capitals are done.
Danny: Oh, their done. They don’t make up oh two deficits; they blow two oh leads.
You see, the Caps have always been a team that would best be described as “all style, no substance”. They had talent – former players Mike Gartner and Kevin Stevens won Cups elsewhere – but they have always come up short.
Five times they blew a 3-1 series lead. Once they were even up 2-0 in a best of five and blew it. I had an Ashlynn Brooke* joke in there, nah. The bottom line is that Washington stepped up and won the next four games, closing it out in Columbus.
*-admit it, you just went to google the name “Ashlynn Brooke”. Just admit it.
They lost seven consecutive playoff series to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The last time the Caps beat the Pens Alexander the Great was eight years old and Sid the Kid was Six. So naturally with the Caps up 3-2 in the series Game 6 goes to OT. This time, though, Pittsburgh hit the post. This time, Kuznetsov – the right Evgeny – found the back of the net. And Washington topped another demon.
Then against Tampa Bay – the top team in the East – they went down 3-2 in the series. Clearly the Caps were done. Nope. Not this time. They scored the last NINE GOALS of the series – back-to-back 4-0 shutouts – to win the Prince of Wales Trophy and their first Stanley Cup Finals berth in 20 years. Ovechkin was a teenager in Russia at that time. Hell, not a single player on the Capitals’ roster was even drafted in the league yet.
Then they were Cinderella, but they were also playing Cinderella. The Vegas Golden Knights, the expansion team, the best expansion team ever, were their opponents. The only other time an expansion team had ever reached the final of their sport in their inaugural season was in 1967, but there was a caveat: In 1967 the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams, all six expansion teams were all placed in the same division, and the format was that the top four teams in each division played in a division semi-final, then a division final, and then the Cup final. So when the St. Louis Blues beat the Minnesota North Stars – another expansion team – they were in the Stanley Cup Finals in their inaugural season. This was different. The Vegas Golden Knights were the only expansion team this year, yet they won the Pacific Division. Marc-Andre Fleury, two-time Cup champion with the Penguins yet much maligned (trust me, my boss and many of my friends are Penguins fans), had a .947 save percentage this postseason coming into the Finals (the rest of the league was at .910) and a 1.68 goals against average (league was closer to 2.50). He was the definition of the “Hot Goalie”. You just don’t beat the “Hot Goalie”; even on their bad days your goalie will give up more. This just happens.
And it did happen in Game 1. The Caps scored four goals against Fleury. But they gave up five plus an empty netter to lose game one. Oh well, for those of us who aren’t Capitals fans it was a fun ride, but how cool was it for an expansion team to win it all in their inaugural season? Right?
Washington came back and beat the latest chess piece (the Kings being the first) in Game 2, 3-2 and Capitals goalie Braden Holtby – a guy who has had his ups and downs in Washington – made a save that Washington goalies don’t make. With two minutes to play Vegas winger Alex Tuch had an open net and a one timer. He didn’t elevate it enough and Holtby made a stick save for the Washington ages.
Then the Caps came home – where they had been merely mortal at their best this postseason – and destroyed the upstart darlings 9-3 in two games. In Game 4 Caps had 15 shots for their first four goals. What had been bad luck in the past became good luck in the present. Those pucks that usually went in against them were finding posts. Fleury was earlier in the postseason thanking the posts; now they were his enemy.
With six minutes left in the third period of Game 4 it looked like Vegas was going to get back into the series. Not that they would win the game, but that they would make a fight and extend the series to at least six. But after those six minutes were over, our Danny Boyce was convinced it was done. After make a 4-0 lead 4-2, Vegas gave up two bad goals – the second being on a 5-on-3 power play – it was a 6-2 victory and surely the fight was out of the Knights.
But apparently these Knights – whose story has been out of fiction – were created by Monty Python. Their arm’s cut off? No it isn’t. The other arm? Just a flesh wound. Even after Washington took a 1-0 lead, Vegas kept coming. They tied it halfway through the second period, but the Caps went back ahead about 30 second later on a one timer no one saw – it was that fast. Alexander the Great had just gotten his 15th goal of these playoffs, a franchise record. Of course that makes sense – no Capitals team has ever been 24 games into the playoffs – but that also says a lot about this Capitals team. But the Black Knight came back and tied it again. And then the Black Knight took the lead. But instead of the sword going through the tin helmet and killing the Capitals, Washington stuck with the battle.
Halfway through the final period, Devante Smith-Pelly had one of the best goals of this season’s playoffs. His effort throughout these playoffs has led to great things for the Capitals, including a huge goal in the East Finals. This time his work along the boards led to a terrible turnover by the Knights and while falling down (because he was tripped) made fired a shot past Fleury to tie the game. Then, just two and a half minutes later, Brett Connelly fired a wicked wrister that went through the five hole, and an ever alert Lars Eller saw it and slapped it home for a 4-3 lead.
Washington fans were still holding their collective breaths. This is a city that hasn’t seen a champion since the Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI. They’ve had to deal with the failures of Dan Snyder, the bad luck of Dusty Baker (and to a lesser extent, the Montreal Expos), the bad management of the Washington Wizards, and the bad endings of the Capitals. They were prepared.
But this time it was true. It was real. Holtby made every save. The defense stopped every rush. The game was over. The Capitals were champions for the first time. Alexander the Great gets to say “I won a Cup”. He’s scored 607 career goals, all in an era where goals are not nearly as plentiful as they were in the days of Gretzky and Lemieux. And Barry Trotz, a guy who was perceived to not be able to take his team over the hump? It’s over the hump now.
How about Brooks Orpik, the 37-year old vet? Or TJ Oshie? Or Evgeny Kuznetsov?
And the fans? They get to say “We won”. That’s not a bad thing.
Oh, and the players? The best part is that they didn’t have to travel far for a great place to celebrate. . .