Photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images via Washington Capitals
Photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images via Washington Capitals

It’s Really Happening: The Capitals are Playing for the Cup

No one said it was going to be easy, but the Washington Capitals fought their way back from the brink of elimination, and sit just four wins away from hockey’s ultimate prize. They’ll just have to erase the Vegas Golden Knights’ 1-0 series lead to do so.

After pummeling Tampa Bay on their home ice in the series’ first two tilts, the Lightning returned the favor in front of the fans at Capitol One Arena. Sloppy play up and down the roster made scoring chances hard to come by, where Steven Stamkos and the Bolts’ white-hot powerplay made the home team pay for its defensive errors, going 3/7 in Games 3 and 4.

Last Saturday’s Game 5 loss was the Caps’ third in a row, putting them behind 3-2 in the series, and leaving fans who ventured out to watch drinking to forget. As was the case in Games 3 and 4, the Caps were sloppy with the puck, giving up far too many quality chances to the potent Lightning offense, and looking hesitant and unsure defensively

After vanquishing the hated Penguins and jumping out to a 2-0 lead, hope had evaporated like morning fog on the Potomac, and fans across the DMV were bracing themselves for that all too familiar playoff disappointment.

But a series’ momentum can shift like the winds, and a veritable hurricane roared through Capital One Arena last Monday night for Game 6. Aside from a few early chances for the Lightning, the Caps were absolutely dominant. Stout defense stymied the usually virtuosic Lightning attack, and any shots that reached netminder Braden Holtby were stopped with aplomb. T.J. Oshie opened the scoring on a powerplay with 4:48 remaining in the 2nd period, working to get himself free in the slot before ripping the puck past Andrei Vasilevskiy after a perfect pass from Nicklas Bäckström.  Turns out that’s all they would need.

As I watched from my perch in Row Q of Section 422, my back against the cool concrete high above Chinatown, craning my neck to see around various divisional championship banners, it was hard to shake the feeling that I was witnessing something special. There’s probably no such thing as a perfect game, but it’s hard to imagine a better 60 minutes of hockey than what the Caps played Monday night. To my mind, the physical game was the difference. Alexander Ovechkin and Devante Smith Pelly (who added the Caps second goal, and been a major contributor throughout the playoffs) were absolute wrecking balls, and even from the nosebleeds, I could see Lightning skaters looking over their shoulder to see if a human freight train was bearing down on them. Oshie tallied an empty-netter in the game’s waning seconds to seal the victory, and the party was on. The electric crowd spilled out of Capital One Arena and from the steps of the Portrait Gallery to the Greene Turtle a sea of red chanted “We want the Cup!” and “Let’s go Caps!”

Even after such a convincing showing in Game 6, anything can happen in a Game 7, but the Caps were simply not to be denied. In a script fit for Hollywood, Alex Ovechkin drew first blood just over a minute in, blasting an absolute howitzer past Vasilevskiy, and set a tone that refused to abate for the remaining 59 minutes.

Watching the squad respond to their captain’s early example was nothing short of inspiring. Devante Smith-Pelly and T.J. Oshie each sacrificed their bodies to block shots that would put down a bull moose (both would briefly leave the game before returning).  Tom Wilson galvanized his teammates with a fight near the end of the first period, thrashing Braydon Coburn (who has an inch and 25lbs on Wilson, by the way) after the two had been jawing at one another over the glass in the penalty box. Andre Burakovsky scored his first two goals of the playoffs just under 8 minutes apart, and Nicklas Bäckström put the icing on the cake with an empty netter. In sum, it was a complete team effort that allowed Washington to throttle the Lightning in the final two games of the series.

After a dozen years of disappointment, it was once again Ovechkin’s turn to be magnanimous in victory, leading his team in congratulating the Lightning on a hard-fought series in one of the greatest traditions in sports. Ever the free spirit, the red captain gave commentator Pierre McGuire a wolfish smirk before collecting the “cursed” Prince of Wales Trophy, not only touching it, but picking it up and posing for pictures with it as well. After exorcising the demons of Pittsburgh, superstition doesn’t seem to mean much to this team.

As Memorial Day weekend wound down, the final chapter of the Caps season began to unfold. Just off the Las Vegas Strip, T-Mobile Arena, hockey’s unlikeliest (and possibly loudest) venue gave fans a show both on and off the ice. Prior to puck drop, Lil Jon, Michael Buffer, and Criss Angel hyped up the crowd, while a glossy (if overwrought) pregame show proved that Sin City is going to do hockey its own way. Considering that most of DC’s celebrities are politicians with AARP cards, I wouldn’t expect to see any on-ice sword fights when the series comes to Capital One Arena.

While the pregame festivities were certainly a spectacle, the game itself was nothing short of bonkers. In true Vegas fashion, Game 1 treated fans to the on-ice equivalent of a heavyweight title bout, with both fighters trading haymakers and fans waiting to see who was still standing when the dust settled. Like a heavyweight fight, it wasn’t always pretty to watch, emotion and nerves had both sides amped up and sloppy, but the fireworks made up for the lack of precision. The NHL’s two remaining teams battled back and forth, trading goals, with neither team able to pull away. The 6-4 final score belies the fact that the Caps were one well-timed stick check away from Lars Eller tying the game at 5 apiece with 40 seconds to play before Tomas Nosek potted an empty netter to seal the Golden Knights’ first ever Stanley Cups Finals victory.

There are no moral victories in the Stanley Cup Finals, but it’s important to remember the circumstances surrounding Game 1. The Golden Knights were hosting their first ever Stanley Cup final game, and the team entered the tilt with a 12-3 record throughout the playoffs with a just a single home loss. They’ll have to clean up their act defensively, but the Caps have proved they can handle the iciest conditions in the desert, and the series will soon be heading back to the friendly confines of Capital One Arena. Two more dissimilar cities may not exist, and plotlines will abound both on and off the ice. If you missed the memo last time, there’s time to jump on the bandwagon. Buckle up.