The Washington Capitals entered the 2017-18 season still stinging from their latest playoff disappointment months earlier after another dominant regular season. But the team retained its captain, Alex Ovechkin, and its core, including goaltender Braden Holtby and standouts such as Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie. After a solid if uneven regular season, the Capitals entered the postseason without the crushing expectations of years past but also no assurance that this year would be different, especially after losses in their first two playoff games. Then something special happened: Ovechkin led with both his play and emotion, Holtby rekindled his magic in net, rookies complemented veterans and the franchise found itself in unprecedented heights: hoisting the Stanley Cup. Relive the magical run through the images and words of The Washington Post photographers and reporters that followed the team every step of the way.
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The Washington Post was founded as a newspaper in 1877. The company is based in Washington, D.C.
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Stanley Cup Finals
CAPITALS 4, KNIGHTS 1
By Rick Maese
When time expired and the helmets and sticks were tossed into the air, the Washington Capitals poured onto the ice, and a celebration decades in the making ensued. The players hugged each other in joy and shook each other in disbelief.
Team captain Alex Ovechkin was on the edge of the scrum, bouncing and screaming, trying to make sure his voice could be heard from Las Vegas to Washington to Moscow.
As the trophy made its way onto the ice, some 2,400 miles away, a sea of red — jubilant Capitals fans who filled the streets in downtown Washington — erupted, too. The win was a season in the making for many on the ice and a lifetime in the making for so many fans back home. The Stanley Cup, the most storied trophy in sports, is coming to Washington, courtesy of a pair of Russian scoring machines, a journeyman-turned-hero, an unflappable goaltender and a supporting cast that confronted a season's worth of challenges with careers' worth of determination.
The Capitals topped the final foe, the Vegas Golden Knights, 4-3, in exciting fashion Thursday night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup finals. The comeback victory gave the Capitals a four-games-to-one series victory and secured the first NHL championship in the franchise's 44-year history — and the city's first title in any of the four major American sports in more than a quarter-century.
"I can't explain what I feel," Ovechkin said when it was over. "It's unbelievable."
The finale was tense from start to finish: the hard hits in the opening period, the explosion of scoring in the second and the winning goal off the stick of center Lars Eller in the third. It amounted to three periods of racing hearts and bated breath, electrifying a region of sports fans well-versed in disappointment but largely unaccustomed to the sensation that suddenly swept over them late Thursday night.
After Vegas built a 3-2 lead in the second period, Washington had to claw its way back and did so thanks to one of the most unlikely stars of these playoffs. Forward Devante Smith-Pelly scored a total of seven goals in the regular season. His tying goal at the 9:52 mark in the third period was his seventh of the postseason, his third of the finals.
Barely two minutes later, the Capitals struck again. Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury blocked Brett Connolly's shot but didn't secure the puck. Eller was positioned perfectly on the edge of the crease, scooping the puck from behind Fleury and into the net.
The pair of quick scores lit a fire under the raucous contingent of red-clad fans who made the trek west for the game — not to mention the thousands who had turned much of the Washington region into a giant outdoor party. Many of them had dreamed of this moment for years yet were still wholly unprepared for it.
Fans hugged strangers. Strangers high-fived police officers. Cab drivers stopped their cars to take pictures. Everyone seemed to pause in the middle of the street just to scream. The scene was mayhem, the soundtrack of horns everywhere, honking in rhythm.
Near Capital One Arena in Northwest, Seventh Street was packed, overflowing. People sprinted down H Street, screaming, cursing. Cars everywhere honked the "Let's Go Caps" rhythm. Fans chanted "C-A-P-S" and screamed. Traffic nearby didn't move, and the honks provided a chorus to a celebration that grew as more and more people ran into the mayhem. "Congratulations," they screamed to strangers, voices cracking.
"My goal was always to build a team as good as the fan base," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "I think we have the best fans in the world, and now we have the best hockey team in the world."
This was, in fact, among the most unlikely Capitals teams to make a deep run. Some analysts speculated after last season's early playoff exit that it was time for the Capitals to move on from Ovechkin. The team parted ways with a handful of key players last offseason and opted against an extension for Coach Barry Trotz, whose contract expires July 1.
The Capitals had a losing record one month into the season, and their flashes of brilliance were often matched by inexplicable lapses. The Capitals didn't assume first place in the Metropolitan Division to stay until March 10 and finished the regular season tied for the conference's third-best record.
"Throughout the whole year, not a lot was expected out of us," forward T.J. Oshie said. "Maybe on paper we weren't as elite as teams past. But man, did we ever come together."
Still, they looked little like the team that would start to coalesce several weeks later, losing their first two games of the playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets, sending fans on a familiar ride of disappointment. But Trotz switched goaltenders, replacing Philipp Grubauer with Braden Holtby, and the Capitals started getting the kinds of bounces that once eluded them. They clawed their way back to oust the Blue Jackets, and their reward was a second-round matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a nemesis that had bested the Capitals in their previous seven postseason meetings, including each of the past two years.
But Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and the Capitals kept scoring, Holtby kept shining in net, and Washington bound over the second-round hurdle that had been so insurmountable. In the conference finals, they'd need all seven games to top Tampa Bay and punch a ticket to the Stanley Cup finals. Vegas was an expansion franchise that surprised throughout the regular season and playoffs, including in Thursday's whirlwind second period in which the Golden Knights scored three times. But the Capitals showed resilience, seasoned by years of hope and disappointment and star players who will be treated like heroes in D.C. for a long time.
"To me, they changed all the narratives," Trotz said, "checked off every box. ... It was probably fitting we were down in this game and had to come back."
After the game was finished and the Capitals had completed the comeback, the Stanley Cup was carried onto the ice. NHL Commissioner Gary Berman called up Ovechkin first.
Overcome with emotions, the 32-year-old captain lifted the trophy over his head, planted a kiss on it and took it for spin down the ice, showing off the sport's biggest prize for the rest of the world. He passed it off to Nicklas Backstrom, who gave it to Brooks Orpik. And then Oshie and Jay Beagle and Holtby. It was passed from player to player, champion to champion.
Every one of them had been reminded over and over how Washington teams disappoint, how the Capitals, especially, break hearts. They shrugged off history. They made history. They're bringing the Stanley Cup to Washington, a city that's waited more than a quarter-century to celebrate a champion.
Dan Steinberg contributed from Washington.
KNIGHTS 6, CAPITALS 4
Welcome to the Wild West
By Isabelle Khurshudyan
Alex Ovechkin walked into the locker room, a beanie on his head and a Washington Capitals sweatshirt over his chest. He was struggling to catch his breath, so much so that a team staffer offered to grab him a bottle of water. He was exhausted after a high-paced game that was exactly what the opponent wanted.
"A little nervous overall," Ovechkin admitted.
It was the first game of a first Stanley Cup finals for the bulk of both the Vegas and Washington rosters — and the action was riveting but unfortunate for the Capitals. They lost, 6-4, keeping pace with the speedy Golden Knights until they couldn't, playing a game that wasn't well-suited to Washington's tight-checking identity.
"They were a little quicker than us," Capitals forward Brett Connolly said. "You don't want to be trading chances with any team. There's two good teams. We can score, too. Ten goals tonight. But no team wants to be trading chances back and forth because then it's up in the air as to who is going to score those goals."
Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals is often a feeling-out process for both teams, though the club that wins it is crowned champion roughly 78 percent of the time. For all the plays leading up to the fateful one, for all the frenetic action at both ends of the rink, the game-winner came down to two fourth lines on the ice. Devante Smith-Pelly failed to clear the puck out of the Washington end, and Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore then set up Tomas Nosek's backdoor strike with 10:16 to play.
It was the ninth goal — good news for those who bet the over — in a game that felt as improbable as the two teams playing it. On one bench were the Capitals, who waited a long 20 years to get back to this stage, making their first trip to the finals with the superstar core of Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. On the other bench were the Golden Knights, who waited all of one year, an expansion franchise in its inaugural season that somehow shunned conventional wisdom by making a deep playoff run so quickly.
"I don't think [anybody] believes in us and nobody believes in Vegas, and we're right now in the Stanley Cup finals and we fight for a Cup," Ovechkin said Sunday.
The back-and-forth action was fit for a show on the Las Vegas Strip. With the teams tied at three goals apiece entering the third period, Washington's Tom Wilson jammed a puck through Golden Knights goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who then kicked it into his own net just 1:10 into the frame.
Less than two minutes later, physical fourth-line forward Ryan Reaves punched a puck in from point-blank range to again tie the game for Vegas. Reaves was on the ice again seven minutes later, when Nosek scored the game-winner. Nosek then added the empty-net insurance in the final seconds.
"I think that was probably exciting for the fans but not exactly a clean hockey game for either side," Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby said.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen said, "A lot of energy and a little bit of rust can lead to that kind of play." The Capitals also had to adjust to uncomfortable ice conditions — the puck bounced on a sheet that had to withstand desert heat outside the arena.
"The ice isn't great, or they didn't freeze the pucks or something," Niskanen said. "Not ideal conditions, but they're playing with it, too."
The Capitals were prepared for a strong start from the Golden Knights, who were feeding off the energy of their raucous crowd and then vice versa. Vegas took an early lead when defenseman Colin Miller scored a power-play goal 7:15 into the game with a blast from the left point, his shot winding through two layers of screens. The Golden Knights entered Monday's game with a 10-1 record in the postseason when scoring first.
But Washington seemed to push past its nerves and settle into the charged atmosphere. Earlier in the season, Ovechkin said the Golden Knights' T-Mobile Arena is "like you're in a nightclub. It's like a party. Everybody dancing over there. It's like, 'Holy Jesus, are we in a hockey game, or is this like a pool party out there?' " Showgirls lined the glass by the Capitals' end of the rink during warmups. Two rows of Elvis impersonators — and one person in a gorilla suit — sat along the glass next to Washington's bench. A long and elaborate pregame ceremony pushed back the drop of the puck. Famous ring announcer Michael Buffer read the starting lineup on the ice just as he would before a championship bout. Ovechkin skated in circles, antsy and anxious for the game to start.
The Capitals responded 14:41 into the game, when Connolly redirected Michal Kempny's point shot through his legs and past Fleury, who entered the game with an impressive .947 save percentage during these playoffs. Less than a minute later, forward T.J. Oshie lost the puck on a wraparound attempt, but Backstrom, playing with an injured right index finger, punched it past Fleury's extended left pad.
The Golden Knights took the lead with a pair of goals, and then the Caps did the same. But two fourth-line goals late in the third period put Vegas up for good, the house winning once more.
"They're a fast team, and we know that," Backstrom said. "They're going to put some pressure on us. But overall, I thought we were a little sloppy with the puck. We didn't make the plays that we usually do. I think we can play a little quicker, more north. That's what we've got to do."
CAPITALS 3, KNIGHTS 2
Winning hand: Caps hang on to even series
By Isabelle Khurshudyan
Evgeny Kuznetsov was grimacing, clearly in pain as he skated off the ice. He didn't pause as he walked straight down the tunnel leading to the Washington Capitals' locker room, and the team's dream playoff run was suddenly looking like a nightmare without its top scorer.
But less than three minutes later, there was center Lars Eller smiling and laughing in disbelief. "What a pass," he said to Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny as the two hugged. They had connected for a tally that tied the game and seemed to revive Washington as the team reeled off three unanswered goals in a 3-2 win in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals against the Vegas Golden Knights. Eller played a part in all three, assisting on Alex Ovechkin's and Brooks Orpik's goals in the second period.
Kuznetsov didn't return to the game, and it's unclear how long Washington will be without its No. 1 center. But on Wednesday night, the Capitals persevered in large part because of Eller's effort against the Golden Knights, tying the series at a game apiece with the next two games in Washington. This was the first Stanley Cup finals game win in franchise history.
"You lose one of our top players ... your bench sort of rallies around it," Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. "Obviously, a guy like Lars Eller, when all of a sudden Kuzy's not back, Lars has to step into that role. He just stepped up."
The most unlikely of game-winning goals came 9:41 into the second period, from a stay-at-home defenseman who hadn't scored in more than two years. Eller carried the puck into the offensive zone before passing it to Orpik in the left faceoff circle. Orpik's point shot clipped forward Alex Tuch's elbow, taking an unpredictable bounce in front of Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury to get past him and lift Washington to a 3-1 lead. Orpik's last goal was in February 2016.
"I haven't yelled that loud for someone to score a goal since [Alex Ovechkin] scored one of his milestones," forward T.J. Oshie said.
Golden Knights defenseman Shea Theodore made it a one-goal game with his power-play goal later in the second period, and then Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby saved the game late in the third with arguably the best save of the postseason, an outstretched stick denying Tuch's point-blank shot in the final two minutes of the game. Holtby finished with 37 saves, none more important or stunning than that one.
"I honestly thought for a second there, when it bounced right out to them, I was like, 'Oh, no,'" center Nicklas Backstrom said. "But then I was like, 'Oh, yes.'" Said Holtby: "I was just trying to get something there, trying to see where I thought someone would shoot that, and luckily it hit me."
Teams struggle to survive the first 10 minutes at T-Mobile Arena, as the Golden Knights have made a habit out of scoring early. Less than eight minutes into the game, Vegas defenseman Luca Sbisa lofted a pass through the neutral zone, and Washington's Dmitry Orlov attempted to bat down the high puck near the blue line but missed. Golden Knights forward James Neal got an open chance as a result, beating Holtby from the left faceoff circle. Through nine home playoff games, Vegas has scored the first goal in the first 10 minutes six times, and the team fell to 11-2 in the postseason when scoring first.
The game went from bad to worse for the Capitals. With 5:21 left in the first period, Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb crunched Kuznetsov against the glass, and Kuznetsov skated off the ice in distress, clutching his left arm or wrist. He retreated to the locker room and didn't play the rest of the game because of an undisclosed "upper-body" injury. Trotz didn't have an update immediately after the game, but he considered McNabb's hit "questionable."
Depending on the severity of the injury, the loss could be devastating for the Capitals. Kuznetsov has been Washington's leading scorer during the playoffs with 11 goals and 14 assists through 21 games.
With Kuznetsov out, Nicklas Backstrom centered the top trio with Ovechkin and Tom Wilson while Eller's role was elevated to a second line with wingers Oshie and Jakub Vrana. During a stretch of four-on-four play less than three minutes after Kuznetsov got hurt, winger Andre Burakovsky won a battle along the boards, falling down as he flung the puck to Kempny on the left side. With Fleury turned to the left, Kempny passed the puck across the slot to Eller in the right circle, and Eller one- timed the puck into a half-open net to tie the game.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Worth the Wait"
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Table of Contents
Introduction by Thomas Boswell,
Stanley Cup Finals,
Eastern Conference Finals,
Stanley Cup Playoffs Second Round,
Stanley Cup Playoffs First Round,
2017-18 Regular Season,