Journey to the Cup: How the Washington Capitals reached the Stanley Cup Final
A look back at Washington’s postseason series wins against Columbus, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.
The Washington Capitals had never made it past the second round of the playoffs in the Alex Ovechkin era, which has spanned 13 seasons. Expectations were particularly high for the club in recent years as the team won the President’s Trophy in 2016 and 2017 and was loaded with talent, but the Capitals’ promising seasons ended prematurely with back-to-back losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. A tumultuous offseason, which saw the Capitals lose Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and, notably, Nate Schmidt, among others, tempered expectations for this season’s projections. Though the Capitals remained in playoff position all year, the team was not the same, and without the consistent play of Ovechkin and John Carlson that carried Washington throughout the regular season, this team could have been in a different situation.
But like the inaugural season of the Golden Knights, the Capitals threw the odds out the window this year, especially at the start of the postseason, and refused to be limited by anything that came their way. As such, Washington will make the franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 20 years. The third time was the charm as Washington finally eliminated Pittsburgh in the second round, and the Capitals fought their way through three difficult series, showing more heart than ever. Braden Holtby was the difference-maker, especially compared to the past few seasons, as he more closely resembled his dominant playoff form from earlier in his career.
Now, the Capitals will face their biggest test of the postseason as they go head to head with the red-hot Marc-Andre Fleury and Vegas Golden Knights. But before these teams battle it out, let’s take a look at how the Capitals got here as we explore their journey to the Cup.
2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs
Round One: Washington vs. Columbus
The Columbus Blue Jackets took the first two games in Washington, both in overtime, stunning the Capitals and getting out to a 2-0 series lead for the first time in franchise history.
Philipp Grubauer got the nod as the starting goaltender for the Capitals to start the playoffs after outperforming Holtby down the stretch. He did not play particularly well against Columbus, however, surrendering eight goals before being replaced by Holtby late in Game 2. Here’s an overview of some of the key moments from the first two games of the series.
GAME 1: Columbus @ Washington (4-3 CBJ, OT)
Washington grabs a 2-0 lead with two late power-play goals by Evgeny Kuznetsov in the final 2:08 of the first period. The two strikes are separated by just 29 seconds. Washington surrenders the next two before taking a 3-2 lead early in the third period on a goal by Devante Smith-Pelly off a cross-ice feed from Jakub Vrana. However, Columbus scores its second power-play goal of the night with under five minutes left in the third to force overtime.
Six minutes into overtime, Artemi Panarin exposes Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov as he skates right around him and scores the game-winner, giving the Blue Jackets a 1-0 series lead.
GAME 2: Columbus @ Washington (5-4 CBJ, OT)
A deflection by Jay Beagle gets the Caps on the board just 2:12 into the game. Ovechkin doubles Washington’s lead later in the period with his first of the playoffs, later adding his second power-play goal of the night to give Washington a 3-1 lead a little more than four minutes into the second period.
✌️ FOR ✌️ #STANLEYCUP #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/D9S4FzalLS— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 16, 2018
However, the Capitals proceed to give up the next three goals, which includes another two power-play goals (just like in Game 1). Holtby replaces Grubauer to start the third period, a period in which the Capitals outshoot Columbus 21-5. Their hard work eventually pays off as T.J. Oshie ties the game at 4-4 with under four minutes left in regulation.
For the second game in a row, extra time is required. Unfortunately for Washington, Holtby isn’t able to turn the tide this time as Matt Calvert nets a controversial game-winning goal 12:22 into overtime. The play is reviewed to determine if Columbus was offside, but the goal stands.
The Capitals outplay and outshoot the Blue Jackets (58-30), but Sergei Bobrovsky makes 54 saves.
After the game, Ovechkin states that the Capitals will tie the series with two wins in Columbus.
“It’s going to be fun when we bounce back, and [we’re] going to tie the series and come back here and play Game 5 at home.”
Meanwhile, taking a 2-0 series lead back to Columbus, the Blue Jackets had their eyes set on taking a stranglehold on the series in a critical Game 3.
GAME 3: Washington @ Columbus (3-2 WSH, 2OT)
#HoltBeast is your Game 3 starter. #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/xxrL5ZQVxe— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 17, 2018
Holtby makes his first start of the playoffs, which proves to be a major factor in the outcome of the series.
Washington gets on the board first for the third straight game as Tom Wilson deflects a point shot by Matt Niskanen in the second period. The Capitals take a 2-0 lead on Brett Connolly’s first career playoff goal, but a Columbus challenge for offside reverses the call. A top-shelf laser beats Holtby a few minutes later, but the Capitals regain the lead on a power-play marker by Carlson, who nets his first goal of the postseason. It’s his seventh point in three games, however.
Panarin gets the equalizer early in the third on a give-and-give-and-give-and-go with Cam Atkinson, but neither team is able to light the lamp for nearly 45 minutes of action as this one requires double overtime. The Blue Jackets are one shot away from a 3-0 series lead, which would all but ensure the first series win in franchise history.
Much to Columbus’ chagrin, however, Lars Eller delivers the biggest goal of Washington’s season at the 89-minute mark of the contest. The Capitals give the Blue Jackets a little taste of their own medicine with a shocking overtime victory on the road. It’s certainly not pretty, but it’s a huge goal that helps Washington get back into the series.
THE @lellerofficial 2OTGWG WAS JUST HOW HE DREW IT UP! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/2gXQnbe3f4— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 18, 2018
Without Eller’s goal, it’s highly likely the Capitals would have been out in the first round. But following that goal, Washington didn’t look back, winning the next three and eliminating Columbus in six games. The Capitals’ gut-check performance in Game 3 was one of the more significant moments in their playoff run. Here’s an overview of some of the key moments in the rest of the series.
GAME 4: Washington @ Columbus (4-1 WSH)
For the fourth consecutive game, the Capitals strike first as Wilson gets his second of the series. The Capitals net the eventual game-winner on a second-period power-play goal by Oshie, who slams home a rebound on a wide-open net. Ovechkin puts the game out of reach when he makes it 3-0 less than three minutes into the third.
As promised, Ovechkin and the Capitals tie the series at 2-2 with back-to-back wins in Columbus.
GAME 5: Columbus @ Washington (4-3 WSH, OT)
For the first time in the series, the Blue Jackets score the first goal of the game as Calvert scores an ugly one while short-handed. The Capitals get the next two (1, 2) with goals from Nicklas Backstrom and Kuznetsov, but Calvert converts his second of the night on a breakaway gone wrong, tying the game 4:45 into the second period. Oshie gives Washington a 3-2 lead with a power-play goal late in the second, but Columbus ties it up again early in the third.
For the fourth time in five games, the Capitals and Blue Jackets go to overtime.
Nearly twelve minutes into the frame, Backstrom scores his second of the night on a deflection in the slot, giving Washington a 3-2 series lead.
BACKSTROM WINS THE GAME! WASHINGTON LEADS THE SERIES! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/CWG2BJIcja— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 21, 2018
GAME 6: Washington @ Columbus (6-3 WSH)
Orlov makes a slick move in the offensive zone and fires home a bullet a little over 12 minutes into the opening period, giving the Capitals a 1-0 lead for the fifth time in six games.
The Blue Jackets tie the game on captain Nick Foligno’s first of two goals on the night, but Ovechkin comes right back with two straight goals of his own. The first is the 50th career postseason goal of his career:
50th career #StanleyCup Playoff goal for @ovi8! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/di7ORB4QhY— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 24, 2018
Ovi extends Washington’s lead to 3-1 with just 1:07 left in the second period with his second of the game.
OVI 👏IN 👏THE 👏OFFICE #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/3lgfIhkfc6— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 24, 2018
Thanks to a trip that goes uncalled, Columbus pulls within one just 2:25 into the third. However, Smith-Pelly scores a huge goal just 1:31 later. Chandler Stephenson then scores his first career postseason goal on a beauty while short-handed, beating Bobrovsky five-hole to give Washington a 5-3 lead just 1:34 after that.
Though Foligno pots another one on a pretty passing play less than three minutes later, the Capitals seal the game and series with an empty-netter from Eller with 14 seconds left in the third.
Thanks to complete team efforts, excellent leadership, strong special teams play and outstanding goaltending from Holtby, the Capitals overcame a 2-0 deficit and won four straight games to advance to the second round.
YOUR WASHINGTON CAPITALS ARE MOVING ON TO ROUND TWO! #ALLCAPS #STANLEYCUP pic.twitter.com/1UrtixW6yr— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 24, 2018
Round One Statistical Overview
Overall Record: 4-2
Goals For: 24
Goals Against: 18
Power Play: 33.3 percent
Penalty Kill: 83.3 percent
Leading Scorers: Carlson (1-8—9), Ovechkin (5-3—8)/Kuznetsov (4-4—8)/Backstrom (2-6—8)
TOI/GP: Niskanen (29:28), Orlov (28:20), Carlson (27:35), Kuznetsov (24:28), Ovechkin (24:00)
Corsi For Percentage (5v5): Ovechkin (54.84), Orlov (52.77), Connolly (52.59)
Points Per 60: Backstrom (3.43), Ovechkin (3.33), Kuznetsov (3.27), Carlson (3.26)
Hits/GP: Wilson (3.5), Orpik (3.0), Smith-Pelly (2.2), Orlov/Eller/Oshie (2.0)
Blocks/GP (>4 GP): Niskanen (3.3), Orpik (2.7), Orlov (2.3), Kempny (1.7), Carlson (1.5)
Goalie Stats: Grubauer (0-1, .837 SV%, 4.55 GAA), Holtby (4-1, .932 SV%, 1.92 GAA)
Round Two: Washington vs. Pittsburgh
We meet again... #ALLCAPS #CapsPens pic.twitter.com/GycRBwpwIc— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 24, 2018
For the third straight season, the Washington Capitals were set to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. Pittsburgh defeated Washington in 2016 and 2017 en route to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, but the Capitals’ attitude heading into this year’s series was different.
When asked about the upcoming series against Pittsburgh, Ovechkin had a simple response: “Can’t wait.”
Like in round one, the Capitals got off to a rough start and found themselves down in the series. However, they responded with two straight wins, including Game 3 in Pittsburgh, before falling to the Pens in Game 4, sending the series back to Washington tied at 2-2. Here’s an overview of some of the key moments from the first four games of the series.
GAME 1: Pittsburgh @ Washington (3-2 PIT)
The Capitals get off to a dream start with a goal less than 20 seconds into the series on a fantastic feed from Ovechkin to Kuznetsov, who roofs it over Matt Murray’s glove.
17 SECONDS IN AND @KUZYA92 HAS THE FIRST GOAL OF THE SECOND ROUND! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/UQTzuyry7J— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 26, 2018
Similarly, Ovechkin sends a blast top-shelf at the start of the third, beating Murray’s glove again and giving the Capitals a 2-0 lead.
Twenty-EIGHT second into the Third! @Ovi8 #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/aIgRNJVyrP— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 27, 2018
However, Washington blows the 2-0 lead, giving up three goals in the third period. The third goal is especially soft as a deflection beats Holtby short-side after he turns it over behind the net. Pittsburgh holds on to the 3-2 lead with the help of some stellar saves by Murray, giving the Penguins a 1-0 series lead.
GAME 2: Pittsburgh @ Washington (4-1 WSH)
Washington responds with a big effort in Game 2, starting with another snipe by Ovechkin just 1:26 into the game.
Stay 🔥 @Ovi8! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/iPZPPORVCX— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 29, 2018
Vrana gives the Caps a 2-0 lead later in the opening frame with a power-play goal. He nets a beauty for his first career postseason goal as he finally gets rewarded for his strong play.
.@JVranaa's First #StanleyCup Playoff Goal (and a goalie assist for #HoltBeast)! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/Pt7U9Jkqu4— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 29, 2018
Connolly makes up for the disallowed goal against Columbus, netting his first career postseason goal to give Washington a 3-0 lead just 2:08 into the middle frame. Kris Letang scores on a simple wrister from the blue line as Holtby is screened, cutting the Capitals’ lead to two late in the second.
The Penguins come close to pulling within one, but the close call is ruled no goal. The play is controversial as the puck appears to be over the line; however, as a result of the parallax effect (since the lines are painted below the surface of the ice), the call on the ice is the correct call without a conclusive overhead angle.
Works when the puck is flat on the ice as well. pic.twitter.com/IBkcEc2aNT— Ryan Steinke (@RyanSteinke) April 29, 2018
For those wondering why the goal wasn't counted, a conclusive overhead angle is really needed....this is mind blowing I never knew this. pic.twitter.com/gJBPL3tq5a— Pavel Barber (@HeyBarber) April 29, 2018
Backstrom puts the game away with an empty-net goal late in the third as the Caps tie the series at 1-1.
GAME 3: Washington @ Pittsburgh (4-3 WSH)
Game 3 is a tight see-saw contest that sees four lead changes and five goals in the second period.
Carlson gets things started with a power-play marker to cap off a strong shift less than a minute into the second. But six minutes later, the Penguins have a 2-1 lead after goals from Jake Guentzel (his eighth of the postseason) and Patric Hornqvist. Stephenson grabs his second of the playoffs later in the frame on a great shift by Oshie and Backstrom. Niskanen makes a potential game-saving play by clearing the crease after a puck squeaks by Holtby.
But Sidney Crosby has the last word in the second as he scores on a one-timer off a fancy feed from Guentzel, giving Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead after two.
Washington ties the game a little over five minutes into the third period on Niskanen’s first of the playoffs as he adds to an already-impressive performance in Game 3.
It appears as though the game is headed to overtime.
However, with just 67 seconds left in the period, Ovechkin scores an absolute beauty to give the Capitals a stunning lead late in the game. Backstrom makes a great feed on a 2-on-1, and while Murray makes an outstanding stop on Ovi’s first attempt, the Great 8 bats the puck out of mid-air and into the net to give the Capitals a 2-1 series lead.
As a result of his hit on Zach Aston-Reese in Game 3, the NHL Department of Player Safety suspended Wilson for three games, which would keep him out for the rest of the series.
GAME 4: Washington @ Pittsburgh (3-1 PIT)
Three out of four goals scored in the game come on the man advantage as Pittsburgh evens up the series at 2-2. Oshie scores on the power play to tie the game at 1-1 in the second period, but Evgeni Malkin’s power-play tally at the end of the period gives the Penguins a lead they do not surrender. It’s another very close call, but this one counts as it clearly crosses the goal line. Guentzel adds his second of the night with an empty-net goal in the final minute of regulation as the Capitals manage just three third-period shots and lose 3-1.
At 2-2, the matchup became a best-of-three series with Washington still in control of home-ice advantage. The Capitals were at another turning point of the season, though; losing Game 5 at home would put them in a tough position in an elimination game on the road. Instead, Washington came out with a compelling performance and handed Pittsburgh a lopsided 6-3 loss.
GAME 5: Pittsburgh @ Washington (6-3 WSH)
Taking a page out of the Capitals’ playbook, Jamie Oleksiak gets the Penguins on the board just 2:23 into the first period. Holtby comes up with big saves early, though, including one as he robs Crosby in front of the yawning cage. The Capitals take a 2-1 lead with two goals in the final 1:38 of the first period, with one from Carlson on the power play and the other from Connolly just 33 seconds later. Pittsburgh scores twice on the power play in the second to take a 3-2 lead into the final frame, but it’s all Capitals after that.
Kuznetsov continues to struggle to shoot after taking multiple slashes to the wrists from Letang earlier in the series. However, he improvises and gets things started with a goal less than a minute into the final frame, tying the game at 3-3 just 52 seconds into the third period as he beats Murray five-hole (remember this move). The game remains tied for most of the third until Holtby makes a big stop at one end of the ice, allowing the Capitals to make a series-altering play at the other. Kuznetsov sends the outlet pass to Ovechkin at center ice; Ovechkin gets Murray to over-commit before throwing the puck to Vrana, who slams it into the wide-open net. It’s a great play by Ovechkin, and Vrana demonstrates his excellent speed and hockey sense with the clutch go-ahead strike.
JAKUB VRANA LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/CjB88XlpUB— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 6, 2018
Pittsburgh pulls its goalie but Oshie makes a smart defensive read, stripping the puck from Phil Kessel and scoring on the empty net. Eller adds a second empty-netter with less than six seconds left in the game as the Capitals take a 3-2 series lead. Holtby stops 36 of 39 and Vrana earns First Star honors on the top line with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov as he finishes with three points on the night as the Capitals take a 6-3 victory in Game 5.
The Capitals now had a chance to finish off the Penguins in Game 6. Was it a must-win situation? Not technically. But considering the recent history and the Capitals’ long-term playoff disappointments, it felt like a must-win for a Caps team plagued by past failures against Pittsburgh. The team had a 4-1 record on the road leading up to Game 6, but it was a do-or-die situation for the Penguins, who had back-to-back championships to defend.
GAME 6: Washington @ Pittsburgh (2-1 WSH, OT)
With Backstrom out of the lineup and Shane Gersich out as a healthy scratch, Travis Boyd as well as Aussie Nathan Walker make their postseason debuts. Walker makes his presence felt on the Capitals’ fourth line with a huge assist on the opening goal of the game, setting up Alex Chiasson in front to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead just 2:13 into the second period. It’s a soft goal for Murray to yield but a huge one for the Caps with the Penguins desperate to stave off elimination.
CHASER SHORT SIDE! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/bJijhkVDnt— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 8, 2018
In a game in which the Penguins play with surprisingly little energy but both teams get great scoring chances, Letang gives them a huge boost with the game-tying goal off a faceoff later in the frame. But this would be the last tally in regulation as this critical Game 6 is destined for overtime.
A little over five minutes into the extra frame, Crosby turns the puck over at Washington’s blue line, and Ovechkin comes up with the puck in the neutral zone. He pushes it forward to the breaking Kuznetsov, who goes in alone on Murray. Kuznetsov goes back to the forehand-backhand deke that worked in Game 5 and beats Murray five-hole to give the Capitals a 2-1 overtime victory, thus eliminating Pittsburgh in six games and sending the Capitals to the Eastern Conference Final.
KUZY'S GAME WINNER IN OT!! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/HfYXfHMKYy— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 8, 2018
THE GOAL! THE HANDSHAKES! THE CAPITALS ARE MOVING ON! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/ZWKviDMVnp— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 8, 2018
In the end, the Capitals finally exorcised their demons by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins and advancing to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in the Ovechkin era. The victory was massive after an emotional series saw the Capitals play their hearts out. The fact that the Capitals did it without Backstrom and Wilson in Game 6 made the victory even sweeter, and it made the team performance that much more impressive. But they weren’t finished.
8 down, 8 to go. #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/NzTBPR96aY— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 8, 2018
FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 20 YEARS - YOUR WASHINGTON CAPITALS ARE HEADED TO THE EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/1l7Vs0AgFM— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 8, 2018
Round Two Statistical Overview
Overall Record: 4-2
Goals For: 19
Goals Against: 14
Power Play: 26.7 percent
Penalty Kill: 73.7 percent
Leading Scorers: Ovechkin (3-4—7), Kuznetsov (3-3—6), Backstrom (1-4—5)/Eller (1-4—5)
TOI/GP: Carlson (25:53), Niskanen (24:17), Orlov (22:42), Oshie (21:09), Backstrom (20:28)
CF% (5v5, >4 GP): Eller (56.85), Vrana (55.73), Connolly (55.36), Orpik (54.07)
Points Per 60 (>3 GP): Wilson (4.87), Vrana (3.56), Ovechkin (3.49), Eller (3.10)
Hits/GP (>3 GP): Wilson (6.7), Smith-Pelly (4.8), Ovechkin (4.5), Oshie (3.5)
Blocks/GP (> 3 GP): Kempny (2.5), Niskanen (2.3), Orpik (2.2), Orlov (2.0)
Goalie Stats: Holtby (4-2, .921 SV%, 2.15 GAA)
Round Three: Washington vs. Tampa Bay
Tampa Bay was heavily favored coming into the series, especially since many expected the Capitals to tire out after expending so much energy in an emotional second-round series win against Pittsburgh. To the surprise of many, however, Washington came out and won the first two games on the road, jumping out to a 2-0 series lead.
GAME 1: Washington @ Tampa Bay (4-2 WSH)
Michal Kempny scores his first postseason goal to give the Capitals the first lead of the series 7:28 into the first period.
In a wild turn of events, Nikita Kucherov scores a goal to tie the game as the first period is coming to an end, but the refs waive it off because the Lightning have too many men on the ice. Instead of the game being tied at 1-1, the Capitals get a power play with eight seconds left in the period. Ovechkin makes Tampa pay dearly as he scores with six seconds left in the frame, giving the Capitals a 2-0 lead after one.
WHAT A TURN OF EVENTS! @OVI8 MAKES IT 2-0! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/w7vT4GM8ul— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 12, 2018
The Capitals add two more in the second period with a goal from Beagle and a power-play marker from Eller as Washington takes a 4-0 lead. Tampa Bay scores twice in the third as Steven Stamkos nets his first of the series (on the power play), but Washington takes Game 1 by a final score of 4-2.
GAME 2: Washington @ Tampa Bay (6-2 WSH)
Yet again, Washington gets on the board early with a goal from Wilson (in his second game back from the suspension) just 28 seconds into the first period. The referees completely blow two calls, which leads directly to two power-play goals by the Lightning. The second call is especially egregious as Oshie gets called for high-sticking even though Victor Hedman clearly gets hit in the face by the puck. But Washington responds by scoring five unanswered goals, three of which come in the second period.
First, Washington ties it up with a goal from Smith-Pelly less than three minutes into the second. The Caps add two more in the final 1:02 of the frame. Eller scores the first one, redirecting a centering feed from Vrana. Kuznetsov then scores on the power play with under three seconds left in the period, giving Washington a 4-2 lead after two.
Ovechkin nets his 10th of the playoffs on a 2-on-1 with Kuznetsov a few minutes into the third, and Connolly scores later in the frame as the Capitals stun the Lightning with two wins in Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay responded, however, winning the next three games, including both in Washington, and coming away with a 3-2 series lead.
GAME 3: Tampa Bay @ Washington (4-2 TBL)
Tampa Bay nets two on the power play once again and scores three unanswered goals in the first 24 minutes of the game. Connolly cuts the deficit to two in the middle of the second period, which breathes life into Capital One Arena. The Capitals begin to take over the game, which leads to a 3-on-1 attempt. Vasilevskiy makes a huge stop, but the Capitals draw a penalty on the play. Despite having all the momentum, the Capitals are unable to convert, which is the turning point of the game. Tampa Bay scores again later in the period, and while the Capitals pull within two with three minutes left in the third, they are unable to fight back after going 0-for-3 on the power play.
GAME 4: Tampa Bay @ Washington (4-2 TBL)
Backstrom returns to the lineup after missing four games with a hand injury sustained in the Pittsburgh series. Orlov gets the Caps on the board first. However, Kempny commits a brutal turnover just over a minute later, which leads to a perfect tic-tac-toe play by the Lightning. Stamkos cashes in on the power play for the fourth straight game less than three minutes later. Kuznetsov scores his 10th of the postseason in the second period, but Alex Killorn scores the go-ahead goal 11:37 into the third, just seconds after Washington kills off Eller’s second penalty of the game (the first led to Stamkos’ goal). Tampa adds an empty-net goal and ties the series at 2-2. The Capitals go 0-for-7 on the power play in back-to-back home losses.
GAME 5: Washington @ Tampa Bay (3-2 TBL)
Cedric Paquette of Tampa Bay’s fourth line scores just 19 seconds into the game as Lightning coach Jon Cooper continues to employ Tampa’s fourth line against the Ovechkin line because of its strong checking game. Another mysterious non-call leads to Tampa Bay’s second of the night as Orlov gets tripped up by Stamkos in the neutral zone; this allows Ondrej Palat to give the Lightning a 2-0 lead.
Lightning strikes again just 33 seconds into the second period as fourth-liner Ryan Callahan gives Tampa Bay a surprising 3-0 lead. This play is controversial as well and gets reviewed, but the goal counts. However, this will be the final goal Tampa Bay scores this season.
The Capitals score twice as Kuznetsov and Ovechkin each net their 11th of the postseason. Kuznetsov brings the Capitals within two 4:21 into the second, and Ovechkin scores on an absolute blast with 1:36 left in the game. Washington gets several strong chances, but Vasilevskiy holds them off, giving the Lightning a 3-2 series lead.
With a win in Game 5, the Lightning had the Capitals right where they wanted them. The series would shift back to Washington, where the Lightning were 2-0. Tampa Bay was one win away from advancing to the franchise’s second Stanley Cup appearance in four seasons, but the Capitals weren’t ready to go home yet.
GAME 6: Tampa Bay @ Washington (3-0 WSH)
The Capitals come out strong and play with a lot of heart, though neither team scores in the first 35 minutes of the game until Oshie breaks through on a clutch power-play goal, giving Washington a 1-0 lead late in the second. It’s the first time the Capitals’ power play looks decent in quite some time, though that’s partly because it’s the first time since the second period of Game 4 that the referees actually blow the whistle on the Lightning. But Backstrom’s calm presence opens up more options for Washington on the man advantage, and Oshie capitalizes from inside the box.
QUICK RELEASE! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/NbxrvHjpTX— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 22, 2018
Though the Capitals continue to outplay the Lightning, the close game is every bit as tense as you might expect an elimination game to be. However, Stephenson and Smith-Pelly combine for a huge goal halfway through the third period, giving the Capitals a tiny bit of breathing room.
Chandler Stephenson with the hustle and the pass, DSP with the finish. 2-0, Washington! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/5YPrfnJu9m— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 22, 2018
Even so, especially with the strength of Tampa Bay’s power play, it feels as though the Lightning can get two quick ones at any minute even though the Capitals are playing the same stifling defensive game they used to shut down the Penguins in Game 6 of the second round. Eventually, Oshie scores the empty-net goal to seal the deal.
OSHIE ENG!!! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/eTgCRsZ1ZC— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 22, 2018
Holtby records his first shutout of the entire season, stopping all 24 shots he faces as the Capitals tie the series at 3-3 and force a Game 7.
After a statement game in Game 6, it all came down to a Game 7 in Tampa Bay for all the marbles. The winner would move on to compete for the Stanley Cup against the Golden Knights, and the loser would head to the golf course. After getting shut out in Game 6, Tampa Bay was expected to respond with a strong burst of offense, especially with the matchup advantage on home ice. But Holtby and the Capitals had other plans.
Prior to Game 7, Trotz took the “hot lap” to start practice. It was symbolic of how everyone, including Trotz, was all-in for this Capitals team, and it was certainly a sign of what was to come in Washington’s Game 7 performance.
Caps lost their last road game. So someone else had to do the hot lap. It was Barry friggin’ Trotz. pic.twitter.com/F5k9j9AfkS— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 23, 2018
GAME 7: Washington @ Tampa Bay (4-0 WSH)
The Capitals take an early lead as Ovechkin scores just 1:02 into the game. Wilson starts the play in the neutral zone and sends a feed to Kuznetsov, who finds Ovi streaking on the left. Ovechkin blasts it home, beating Vasilevskiy and scoring the game-winning goal that would launch his team to the Stanley Cup Final.
Pretty good first shift for the first line... #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/hRbl7C7zGv— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 24, 2018
The Lightning come about as close as it gets to tying the game as Hedman gets the puck to the crease for Yanni Gourde, but Brooks Orpik and Christian Djoos make a joint effort to prevent Gourde from tapping the puck into the wide-open net.
A few minutes later, Burakovsky, who had zero postseason points prior to Game 7 and was a healthy scratch in Game 5, scores the biggest goal of his career to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead.
BURKIE WITH THE STRIP AND SNIPE! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/9pPvRg49q4— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 24, 2018
Burakovsky gets his second of the game later in the period on a breakaway off a beautiful bank pass from Carlson.
BURKIE TIMES TWO! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/Saq83u1ARG— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 24, 2018
Both teams trade chances, but Holtby and Vasilevskiy make big stops. Eventually, Tampa Bay pulls Vasilevskiy with just over four minutes left in the game, but Backstrom scores on the empty net after a strong shift by Beagle. It is this goal that makes the reality palpable for the Capitals, as Ovechkin expresses with his jubilant celebration on the bench. The Capitals win Game 7 by a final score of 4-0 as Holtby records his second straight shutout, stopping 29 of 29 shots. It’s another statement game by the Capitals, who are rewarded with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
A hug over a decade in the making #StanleyCup #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/5uKb7SZtoz— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 24, 2018
The Capitals came out and gave it everything they had, with every player on the team stepping up. Ovechkin was great from the second the game started, getting the game-winner and keeping up the pressure in all three zones throughout the game, and Burakovsky used his speed to his advantage to score two huge goals. Holtby shut out the Bolts for the second straight game, stopping a combined 53 shots. In fact, he and the Caps remarkably held the Lightning off the scoresheet for the final 159:27 of the series. It’s hard to make more of a statement when facing elimination, but the Capitals more than earned wins 11 and 12, setting themselves up for a chance to win the ultimate prize for the first time in franchise history.
THE PRINCE OF WALES TROPHY PRESENTATION (HE TOUCHED IT)!! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/Q32crpIeIA— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 24, 2018
BELIEVE IT! THE WASHINGTON CAPITALS ARE GOING TO THE 2018 #STANLEYCUP FINAL! #ALLCAPS pic.twitter.com/mQxQuXxeYn— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 24, 2018
Round Three Statistical Overview
Overall Record: 4-2
Goals For: 23
Goals Against: 15
Power Play: 23.5 percent
Penalty Kill: 66.7 percent
Leading Scorers: Kuznetsov (4-6—10), Ovechkin (4-3—7)/Oshie (2-5—7)
TOI/GP: Carlson (24:43), Niskanen (23:10), Orlov (22:51), Kuznetsov (19:58), Ovechkin (19:51)
CF% (5v5): Backstrom (56.38), Oshie (55.96), Orlov (55.73), Niskanen (55.42), Vrana (55.29)
Points Per 60: Kuznetsov (4.29), Oshie (3.08), Ovechkin (3.02), Eller (2.85)
Hits/GP: Ovechkin (4.1), Wilson (4.1), Orpik (4.1), Smith-Pelly (3.4)
Blocks/GP: Carlson (1.9), Orlov (1.6), Niskanen/Beagle (1.4)
Goalie Stats: Holtby (4-3, .919 SV%, 2.04 GAA, 2 SHO)
Round Four: Washington vs. Vegas
This Washington Capitals roster is not as strong as those in years past, at least on paper. But as the Golden Knights have shown, winning teams are not built on paper. This Capitals team is focused, committed and “all-in,” which is why Washington will represent the Eastern Conference in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final. Every player has accepted his role and every player has bought in to the system. Sound familiar? It should. The same can be said of the Golden Knights. But the main difference is the history involved.
The Capitals, especially in the Ovechkin-Backstrom era, have experienced tremendous heartache in the form of crushing playoff defeats and disappointments. This year is different, though. Regardless of what happens starting tonight in Game 1, the Capitals have finally chased the demons of past failures and now have a chance to just play for the trophy they have dreamed about winning and have devoted their lives to lifting. They will do so against a group of players that has played with a fire all year, including one named Nate, who certainly has a little extra to play for.
Both teams are fully committed to finishing what they have started, which could make this compelling Stanley Cup Final one for the ages, or, perhaps more fittingly, one for the storybooks. As Fred Shero famously wrote on the chalkboard in the Philadelphia Flyers locker room prior to Game 6 of the 1974 Stanley Cup, “Win today and we walk together forever.” While both teams have put together seasons that will never be forgotten, only one of them will have their story officially etched in silver and nickel, immortalized forever.