Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Long Time Coming, Part Two

This is the second post of a three-part series about the Washington Capitals winning this year's Stanley Cup. The first can be read here, and it ended with me rattling about how this season began with everyone except the Capitals' players and coaches assuming that their window of opportunity had closed.

During the summer of 2017 Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, and William Shattenkirk were all shed from the Washington Capitals organization, one year after Nate Schmidt got shed. And obviously those who remained were getting older not younger, with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie all barreling into their thirties having never reached a conference final, much less a Stanley Cup Final.

When you combine that with the fact that the 2017-18 season was the third one after the team's own GM, Brian MacLellan, declared that there were only two seasons remaining before its window closed... well, you can see why people thought the Caps were done.

I would be lying if I said that I too didn't think they were done. But I am not lying when I say that a part of me also thought the removal of expectations could actually work in their favor by making them play less uptight.

Plus, Evgeny Kuznetsov is younger than all those guys who got shed and he is also a significantly better player who is still improving. And Andre Burakovsky is significantly younger than them and he played better than them during the 2017 playoffs. So shifting the franchise's focus in a fresh direction should not automatically be considered bad, right?

Washington proceeded to finish the 2017-18 regular season with 105 points, tied for the league's sixth-best record. That sounds like regression compared to the fact that they had the best record each of the previous two seasons, but then again, having the sixth-best record in a 31-team league is damn good; and 105 points was good enough to win the Metropolitan Division and guarantee home ice through at least two playoff rounds; and Ovechkin led the league in goals with 49, which was 16 more than he scored the year prior. I daresay that heading into this post-season, no one should have considered them apples to be bad.

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The eternal pessimists raised their voices when the Caps dropped the first two games of the opening round on home ice. Which, just to be clear, was one hundred percent understandable.

But when Ovechkin stood in the locker room after Game Two and said "it's going to be fun when we bounce back and gonna tie the series and come back here and play Game Five at home," it felt like he really knew that was going to happen and wasn't just blowing sunshine up the media's ass.

Of course the comeback wasn't easy, and of course it had plenty of moments when Washington fans were chewing their fingernails down to the skin. Game Three went almost halfway into double overtime before Lars Eller kept hope alive when the puck caromed off of him past Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky for the winner. The Caps then went on to win Games Four through Six as well, turning a 2-0 series deficit into a 4-2 series win and advancing to Round Two with a head of steam and wave of confidence.

Just imagine if Eller had not scored in that second overtime, and someone from Columbus had found the twine instead? The Caps would have been in a near-insurmountable 3-0 hole, and given their history of playoff failures (see my link above) do you really think they would have come back from that? But of course, the point is moot.

Having vanquished the Blue Jackets, they moved on to face the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have historically been their inescapable tormentors and vanquishers (again, see my link above). However this year's Caps were ready to flip the script, and flip it they did.

Pittsburgh had won the last two Stanley Cups, both times eliminating Washington in the second round. In fact, all three of their Cups in the last nine calendar years, and all five of their Cups in franchise history, were won after eliminating Washington. This spring, however, was destined to be different, and Game Six faced off in Pittsburgh with the Caps holding a 3-2 series edge and eager to end things short of a Game Seven

It went to overtime tied at one, and a little more than five minutes into the extra session Ovechkin intercepted the puck and fed a perfect outlet pass to Kuznetsov, springing his 25-year-old countryman on a breakaway. Kuznetsov raced downstream and beat Matt Murray stick side for the winner, lifting a thousand-ton weight off the shoulders of the franchise and its fans and sending the Capitals to the conference finals for the third time in their 44-year history.

Once there they advanced by beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in a full-bore, ultra-competitive, seven-game tilt. As a Lightning fan I would rather skip past this part of Washington's story, but as a hockey fan writing about hockey, I cannot. So I will just point out that after the Caps won the first two games, the Bolts won three straight to seize a 3-2 series lead. But then Washington netminder Braden Holtby pitched back to back shutouts in Games Six and Seven, helping the Caps propel themselves to the Stanley Cup Final... and fyi, those back to back shutouts were against a Tampa Bay squad that led the NHL in goals and had been shut out only one time in the previous 13 months.

And speaking of Holtby, who was raised and reared in Saskatchewan, did I mention that he began the post-season as Washington's backup after losing his starting job to Philipp Grubauer? Did I mentioned he was reinserted for that season-defining Game Three against Columbus in the first round, and that he never surrendered the net again?

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By the time the Stanley Cup Final faced off in Las Vegas, there was a palpable feeling of destiny surrounding this season's Capitals. Even after they dropped Game One of the SCF, you just had a sense that this was their time to win it all.

They gutted out a 3-2 victory in Game Two -- partly due to this career-defining save by Holtby late in regulation -- to "steal home ice advantage" away from the Vegas Golden Knights and head back to Washington with the series knotted at one. Once there, they grabbed control by beating Vegas 3-1 in Game Three and doubling that score to defeat them 6-2 in Game Four. They were skating with purpose and resolution and looking every bit the champions they were about to become.

Not that the Knights were going to make it easy on them when the series shifted back to Vegas for Game Five. No championship is easy to achieve and no elimination game is easy to win.

Washington did score first in Game Five when Jakub Vrana got the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury 6:24 into the second period, but Vegas punched back hard when former Capital Nate Schmidt tied it up a little over three minutes later... Then Ovechkin put the Caps back on top just 34 seconds after that, with a pinpoint-perfect snipe off a beautiful assist from Backstrom... And then David Perron and Reilly Smith both scored for Vegas before the period was done, handing the Knights a 3-2 advantage and giving their fans reason to hope that the season would continue beyond that evening.

But you cannot stop what is meant to be, and the Capitals grabbed destiny in the final frame. First, Devante Smith-Pelly tied it up with a determined rebound goal with 10:08 remaining. Then, 2:31 later, Eller jumped to a puck that had trickled ever so slightly behind Fleury in the paint, and he knocked it into the gaping net to make the Vegas crowd fall silent.

When Eller put that puck in, it was 4:47 in the morning in his hometown of Rodovre, Denmark, and there was an organized watch party being held in its streets. That night he became the first person from Denmark to drink from Lord Stanley's Cup, but that was not all -- he scored the Cup-winning goal to boot.

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Insanity reigned in the final minutes. The game clock stopped working for a period of time while play continued, leaving viewers in the arena and on TV not knowing how much time remained.

Fortunately for everyone, the clock was restored to working order with less than a minute left.

Unfortunately for Vegas fans, the final face-off, following the usual last-minute icings that occur when a goalie is pulled for an extra attacker, took place with 0.6 seconds remaining. Everyone knows that is not enough time for a team to win the faceoff and get a shot off and have the puck cross the goal line before the horn blows.

Before that final face-off occurred, the Washington players who were on the bench allowed themselves to feel joy because they knew there was not enough time left for the Knights to win the faceoff and get a shot off and have the puck cross the goal line. Ovechkin -- who wears his heart on his sleeve, and had been waiting for this moment for no less than 13 years and perhaps for almost 33 -- got wide-eyed and started pushing his teammates together into an anticipatory and energetic group hug.

Then the puck dropped and that last fraction of a second flew away, and euphoria reigned as Capitals players stormed the ice in celebration.

One of the best-earned adventures in the history of intoxication was about to commence.

To be continued...

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