IT WAS OUR YEAR

Okay so back in 2017, I casually wrote that it was the Capitals year, which ended up not being the Capitals year in typical Capitals fashion.

Flash forward to 2018, the Capitals had a very average year. So far gone are the days of run and gun hockey, leading the league in goal differential, and everything else in the past. The road through the playoffs ended up going through Columbus (very underrated team), then Pittsburgh (of course), Tampa (Rangers of the South and President’s Trophy Winner), and then Vegas (yes, you read that right). Who would’ve guessed? — probably zero people did, which is what made this playoff run so much sweeter.

Round 1 — 2 games down to Columbus – Not quite hitting the panic button, but man did something need to change. Enter in Braden Holtby — who played well and rose to the occasion after getting benched for Philipp Grubauer. Ovechkin (after going down 2-0) said that they would be back in DC for a Game 5 and sure enough that’s exactly what happened. Game 6 included a short handed goal, Holtbeast, and the whole team selling out to win. Washington won the series 4-2. It was long, hard fought and really set the table for the rematch the league always likes to feature, Pittsburgh v. Washington.

Round 2 — All the roads always seem to lead through Crosby and Malkin. Zero surprise there, repeat Stanley Cup Champions, always a consistent team, and Crosby is one of the greatest players to ever play the game. FINALLY the Capitals won. Crosby had 13 points, Ovechkin had 8. Braden Holtby stood on his head once again, and the Capitals learned how to make comeback runs stick. Let’s fast forward to Game 6 —

Like all sports, hockey is a game of inches. Thomas Kuhnhackl had the first big time scoring chance in overtime. Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the right winger hit the post, a trend that seemed to rear its ugly head for many players during these playoffs.

Washington responded. Alexander Ovechkin, who has historically come up short against Sidney Crosby and the Penguins, found Evgeny Kuznetsov streaking towards the Pittsburgh net. Kuznetsov used his speed and went from backhand to forehand and slid the puck past Matt Murray to win the series and send his team to the next round. Check that demon off of the list.

Round 3 — A series that included the President’s Trophy winner, and for once it was not the Capitals — Tampa (or the Rangers of the South) — Long time division rivals, with new (familiar) foes in Dan Girardi, Ryan Callahan, and Ryan McDonough (along with some other ex-Rangers), the stage was set for the Capitals to excise another past demon. The Lightning made quick work of arguably the second-best team in the conference in their previous round and are deeper and better on D than Washington. Washington didn’t buckle.

They not only advanced to the third round for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era, but they won. The Capitals rallied back from a 3-2 series deficit to win two straight and eliminate the Lightning in seven games, with the finale on the road.

The Finals — Vegas Golden Knights, the expansion team, vs the Capitals, who would’ve thought? Literally nobody, but it happened. And it was great. Vegas came out strong with a long albeit interesting pregame show to start game 1 (and then all of the rest of the home games). Game 1 was probably as exciting as everyone was hoping it would be with hard hits, a lot of scoring, and some controversy to boot. A blatant missed crosscheck call that lead to Ryan Reaves scoring a goal did not get the Capitals down though. They stormed back to steal a game on the road in game 2, behind Holtby who had 37 saves and an unlikely hero in Brooks Orpik – who scored for the first time in 220 games. Game 2 also gave us all a scare when Evgeny Kuznetsov took a big hit from Brayden McNabb and did not return. Nevertheless, as the team had in the previous series, they had rallied behind eachother and found ways to win. Thanks Lars Eller.

On to DC the series went, no crazy pregame show on the ice, just the Anthem. After a long time waiting, Alexander Ovechkin finally got to play in the finals in front of the hometown crowd, and he did not disappoint. He played with edge, and immense joy every minute he was on the ice. And most importantly, he played with leadership. The Capitals suddenly looked in complete control of the series thanks to Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, who fired a wrist shot past Marc-Andre Fleury that made it perfectly clear the injury that knocked him out of Game 2 was not bothering him. Finishing up with a Devante Smith-Pelly insurance goal at the end, the Capitals took a 2-1 series lead.

And if you thought they were going to let up the gas, they did not. Game 4, the Capitals weathered the storm from a furious Vegas push that included a James Neal post ringer. T.J. Oshie’s response to that? Crash the net. He used his skate to gather the rebound of an Evgeny Kuznetsov shot. Then he buried it past Marc-Andre Fleury. Tom Wilson also scored, to be followed by Smith-Pelly, who pounced on a loose puck to Marc-Andre Fleury’s left and roofed it with 20 seconds left in the period. John Carlson scored with a laser in the second period. Vegas came back with 2 goals in the 3rd to get some of their “mo” back but Michal Kempny dampened that by adding a goal making the score 5-2. The end got real chippy —  The Capitals kept their top power play line out there on the ice and Engelland puts Ovechkin into the boards. McNabb is given a penalty for a hit on Oshie It’s a 5-on-3 for 1:13, and Oshie is given a 10-minute misconduct, so he’s out. Theodore blocks a shot from Kuznetsov, but it goes across the ice and Connolly scores on the power play. Reaves called for unsportsmanlike conduct against Smith-Pelly. They run the clock down and we’re off to Game 5.

Game 5 – A horrendous performance by Panic! At the Disco (who I actually did like back in the day) and a long Medieval Times pregame show later, the puck is dropped on a scoreless 1st period. This game had a very different pace that the others — Vegas was absolutely flying, and they needed to, on the brink of elimination. The Capitals got the scoring started in a frenetic five-goal second period when Jakub Vrana pumped in his third goal of the playoffs, but the Knights answered a little over three minutes later when Nate Schmidt scored off assists from Reilly Smith and Jonathan Marchessault. Ovechkin put the Capitals back on top less than a minute later when he snuck a power-play goal past Marc-Andre-Fleury off a Nicklas Backstrom assist. All seemed to be going well until the Golden Knights evened the score on a David Perron goal, then  Smith closed out the scoring in the second period in the final minute with a wrister off the power play that put the Knights up, 3-2. But the Capitals, who had already rallied several times throughout these playoffs, would not be denied. Playoff hero Smith-Pelly, who’d scored just seven goals in the regular season, scored his seventh goal of the postseason on a beautiful diving shot.

There’s 1:49 left in the 3rd, and you can just feel it’s going to happen.. and then the clock goes out, in peak NHL fashion. It seemed like that 1:49 lasted a lifetime, but sure enough, the Capitals did the damn thing.

After 44 years of waiting for Washington D.C., and 13 seasons for Alex Ovechkin, the Stanley Cup is finally theirs, and we could not be happier.

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