By Steve Silverman
That was a roar of approval that came out of Alex Ovechkin’s mouth as the seconds ticked off the clock in Tampa Wednesday night. His teammates joined him with loud war whoops as the Capitals rallied with two consecutive shutouts in Games 6 and 7 to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.
But if you listened closely, the noises that Ovechkin and his teammates made were really the loudest sighs of relief imaginable.
After years of frustration – largely at the hands of Pittsburgh Penguins – the Capitals have answered three consecutive challenges and made it to the holy land of the Stanley Cup Final.
It’s all good right now, but in a day or two the reality of facing the expansion Vegas Golden Knights will come calling. That assignment comes with its own burden, and we will look at that in just a bit.
But Ovechkin is a different man in this playoff year, and the opening goal was a brilliant moment.
For years, the Caps have been done in by opponents who dictated the pace, got ahead and put the Caps in a come-from-behind position. That was the case in Game 5, when the Lightning scored at the 18-second mark and Washington never recovered.
But this time, Ovechkin took a pass from Evgeny Kuznetsov at the top of the left circle. He blasted it through Andrei Vasilevskiy a little over one minute into the game.
That blast energized the visiting Capitals, hit the Lightning like a punch to the solar plexus and silenced the Amalie Arena crowd.
Braden Holtby earned a special place in NHL history by recording back-to-back shutouts in the final two games of the series. He stopped the last 60 shots he faced in the series, and while he did not have a lot of 10-bell saves Wednesday night, he was in the right place at the right time and he never lost concentration.
“First goal was very important, and after that you can see we had all the momentum on our side and [Holtby] was unstoppable today,” Ovechkin said as he celebrated the win. “Our goalie was something special. Everybody was all in, everybody was sacrificing their bodies. That’s all it takes.”
Ovechkin said that as if he had known for all these years that’s just what it took to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
He definitely understands that lesson now, but in years past, the ability to come together and play their best as a team was something that the Caps couldn’t master. It may have taken Ovechkin a long time to learn the lesson, but it appears they have learned it quite well.
Relief may be short-lived for victorious Caps
The preparation has already begun for the Eastern Conference champions. They have to face the Golden Knights in the championship round, and that presents a new round of issues.
Vegas is a fast, well-coached and opportunistic team that has won three relatively straight-forward series. They have played just 15 postseason games, and they have a 12-3 record to this point.
They have exceeded all expectations as an expansion team from Day One, and they have been even better thanks to Marc-Andre Fleury, Jonathan Marchessault, Reilly Smith and William Karlsson in the playoffs than they were in the regular season.
In many ways, they are an excellent team with depth from top to bottom. The Caps will get a major challenge.
But they are an expansion team, and if the Caps lose to them in the Final, it is another burden that this franchise will have to carry with it.
They got rid of the Penguins, and they came back from the brink of defeat against the Lightning. However, if they lose to the Knights, the history books will not be kind. Their achievements to this point will likely be mocked and then forgotten.
The Capitals still have a mountain to climb. Good enough to get to the Stanley Cup Final will not be good enough. They need to take the brass ring, or the achievement will be diminished.
The best thing the Caps have going for them may be the ability of Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, John Carlson Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Their best players are more talented than the Knights’ best players.
Head coach Barry Trotz can appeal to each and every one of them and tell them to look across the ice at their opposite numbers with the Knights and challenge them to win their battles.
Of course, the Kings, Sharks and Jets were able to say the same thing and all of them lost decisively.
It all looks beautiful for Washington right now, but a loss to the expansion team in the Final will provide a new level of humiliation.
McPhee deserves credit
Nobody is more responsible for the success of the Golden Knights than general manager George McPhee. Nobody is more responsible for the success of the Caps than McPhee.
The serious-minded Vegas general manager held the same position with Washington from 1997 through 2014. He drafted players like Ovechkin, Carlson and Kuznetsov.
He built the Golden Knights with the same concept in mind that he put together the Caps. Speed.
The Golden Knights attack at a fast pace and they defend the same way. Both Smith and Karlsson will turn on a dime and break up plays in the defensive zone, and that’s what has led to frustration among Vegas opponents.
McPhee took advantage of the expansion rules and has built a team that is the favorite going into the Stanley Cup Final. He has earned respect around the league.
“It’s all about being in tune to the way the game is being played,” said Kevin Cheveldayoff, the Winnipeg Jets’ GM. “George has always been one of the smartest people in hockey. When he was in Washington, he always had teams that had skill on the high side. He’s done that with Vegas. They’re very skilled throughout.”
The cameras will certainly focus on the McPhee throughout the final series. While a smile will rarely crease his face, he has to be feeling good about the job he has done with the Knights, as well as he did with the Caps for 17 years.