When Alexander Ovechkin and the rest of his teammates celebrated on the ice in Tampa Bay Wednesday night it was clear to see that years of frustration had been wiped away. After dominating the Lightning in Game 7, Ovechkin was seen letting out big screams, and the smiles and high-fives on and around the bench were numerous. Finally, after 20 years, and recent failures to live up to expectations, the Caps were able to exorcise their demons.
Up next is a meeting in the Stanley Cup Final with the Vegas Golden Knights, who are a great story in their own right. The stage is set for the battle of an expansion team and a team that last played for the Stanley Cup in 1998.
The path for the Capitals during the 2018 NHL Playoffs wasn’t an easy one and was filled with adversity.
Capitals go Down Early to Columbus
Despite having home ice advantage in the opening round, the Caps were stunned at home by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first two games. Backup goalie Philipp Grubauer began the postseason as the starter due to Braden Holtby’s struggles at the end of the regular season.
Grubauer allowed four goals in the Game 1 loss and allowed four more before being benched in the second period of Game 2. The Caps lost Game 2 in overtime and found themselves in a 0-2 hole heading to Columbus.
Fortunately, going on the road for the next two games didn’t faze the Caps. Holtby returned to his starting spot in the crease and played like the Holtby of old. The team woke up and put together two stellar performances in Games 3 and 4 to tie the series, 2-2. Lars Eller ended Game 3 with a thrilling game-winner in double overtime, while the top line of Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, and Evgeny Kuznetsov combined for eight points to lead the way in Game 4.
Game 5 was an overtime thriller in Washington that ended on a Nicklas Backstrom goal to give the Capitals their first lead in the series. Game 6 in Columbus was another dominating performance by Washington. The Caps used two goals from Ovechkin to pull away with the 6-3 victory and head to the next round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Washington vs Pittsburgh: Part 3
In what has become a springtime tradition, the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins would meet for the third consecutive year in the second round.
The Caps took an early lead in Game 1 and looked like the dominant team. Things appeared to be going Washington’s way when Ovechkin scored in the third period to go up by two. Unfortunately, a poor stretch during the third period in which they gave up three goals in a span of less than five minutes cost them the victory.
Washington bounced back in Game 2 to tie the series. Heading into Pittsburgh with the series tied, Washington had a chance to take the upper hand. With the game tied, Ovechkin scored late to give the Caps an important victory in Game 3.
An important development that transpired during the game was the hit by Tom Wilson on Pittsburgh’s Zach Aston-Reese. Although deemed clean by the on-ice refs, as well as the NHL on-site supervisor, Wilson was suspended the next day for three games after a review by the Department of Player Safety.
Wilson, previously known for being an enforcer, found himself on the first line for much of the season. He set career marks during the regular season for goals (14), assists (21), and points (35). Missing him for three games was a big blow to the Caps. Not only did it force head coach Barry Trotz to switch his lines, it took away a huge piece of Washington’s forecheck.
Pittsburgh took Game 4 thanks to the return of Evgeni Malkin. Playing in his first game of the series, Malkin scored what turned out to be the winning goal on the power play in the second period.
It was clear in Game 4 that the Caps missed Wilson. The physicality on the forecheck that had been present for Washington seemed to go away.
Game 5 was back in Washington and the Caps came out ready to play and defend their home ice. They led after one period thanks to goals from John Carlson and Brett Connolly, but Pittsburgh took the lead after beating Braden Holtby twice in the period.
Kuznetsov woke up Capital One Arena with a sweet goal less than a minute into the final frame. That game-tying goal ignited a fire on the Washington bench. The Caps exploded for three more goals in the period. Jakub Vrana netted the eventual game-winner and finished the contest with a goal and two assists. Holtby made 36 stops, and Kuznetsov also added three points.
That victory put the Caps just one win away from advancing.
The Caps didn’t take the easy route. A game that was scoreless through one period entered the final frame tied at 1. Both goalies, Braden Holtby and Matt Murray, played remarkable for their teams. Holtby saved 21 of the 22 shots he faced, while Murray stopped 28-of-30.
Pittsburgh was eliminated from the playoffs for the first time in three seasons when Evgeny Kuznetsov found the back of the net just over five minutes into overtime. When the goal hit the back of the net, it sent Washington to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in 20 years.
Tough Test Against Tampa
As a reward for finally getting past the Penguins, Washington had to square off with the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Considering that the Caps would have to play four of the seven games on the road, it was not going to be an easy series.
Making things even more difficult, was that star center Nicklas Backstrom wouldn’t start the series due to a hand injury. Still, Washington came storming out of the gates and dominated the Lightning in both games in Tampa, scoring a total of 10 goals in the two games.
Surprisingly, the Caps skated faster than the Lightning and appeared to take control of the series.
Of course, as Washington fans know, things never come easy for the Capitals in the postseason. The Lightning weren’t going to lie down and give up.
Starting with Game 3, Tampa woke up and played like the best team in the East. Three straight Tampa wins put the Caps’ backs against the wall. In just one short week they went from a few steps away from the Stanley Cup Final, to yet another postseason disappointment.
Game 6 brought a sense of nervousness, as Washington had to stave off elimination by winning at home for the first time in the series. From the start, the Caps looked to be on a different level, far removed from the poor play of the previous three games.
T.J. Oshie scored twice, and Devante Smith-Pelly pitched in a marker to send the Game 6 home crowd into a frenzy.
Braden Holtby came up big in the game and pitched a shutout during the 3-0 Washington victory by making 24 saves.
He continued his hot play into Game 7, making 29 saves en route to his second consecutive shutout. Alex Ovechkin scored the first goal of the game (the only one Washington would need), and Andre Burakovsky, who had been in and out of the lineup, came up huge with two goals.
Washington’s dominating performance in Game 7 punched the team a ticket to the Stanley Cup Final.
Only time will tell if the Caps will finally hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup at the end of this season. But one thing is for sure, win or lose, Washington has to be proud of everything they overcame during the 2018 postseason.
Barry is the site expert at Victory Bell Rings, covering Penn State football, hockey and basketball. He’s also written about the NHL for RotoWire, Bleacher Report and FanSided. An avid hockey fan, he’s been a Washington Capitals supporter for most of his life.