Eastern Conference finals: Game 7
• The highlights: Alex Ovechkin got on the board and the Capitals took a 1-0 lead just a minute into the game, adding two more on a second-period goals by Andre Burakovsky. An empty netter pushed the final margin of 4-0. Goaltender Braden Holtby was under siege, but did not allow a Lightning shot to get by him for the shutout. The Washington Capitals are going to the Stanley Cup finals. (Read more)
• Postgame reading: Washington’s fourth line has been crucial for the team all postseason. (Read more)
TAMPA — More than three minutes remained in the game, but Alex Ovechkin was on the bench, his gap-tooth smile unmistakable and wide. He raised both arms and hugged whoever was next to him. This Game 7 was a blowout, and he knew the history that had plagued him and his team was about to change.
Then 7.3 seconds remained, and Ovechkin stood in front of his bench and was wrapped in a few more embraces. Then time finally expired, and Ovechkin hopped off the bench and kicked up a leg before he was flanked by teammates Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie.
“You don’t even have to say so much, you just have to look at each other,” Backstrom said. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
Finally, Ovechkin grabbed the Prince of Wales Trophy for the Eastern Conference champions, unafraid of the superstition about not touching it, maybe because this team has already overcome so many odds. With the 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the deciding game of the Eastern Conference finals, Washington will play the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final starting Monday in Nevada.
“Emotions?” Ovechkin said. “We’re going to the Stanley Cup final. I think everybody happy, but we still have not finished. Not done yet, you know what I mean? I’m kind of emotional right now. It’s hard to explain.”
He struggled to collect his thoughts, smiling and shaking his head. Ovechkin then turned to goaltender Braden Holtby for help verbalizing the moment. Holtby smiled back at him. “You’re doing great, babe,” he told him.
“Finally, we get what we want,” Ovechkin continued.
As Backstrom said earlier, “It only took 11 years.”
The Capitals won this Game 7 with two goals from Andre Burakovsky, the inconsistent young winger who had been scratched just games earlier in this series and then admitted to needing to see a sports psychologist this season because he’s often too hard on himself. They won Game 7 with Holtby pitching a second straight shutout, his only two of the season, after the goaltender had lost the starting job going into the playoffs. Washington won Game 7 with Ovechkin, the captain whose career has been associated with individual greatness but no significant team success, scoring the first goal of the game.
The Capitals have taken their hits and then hit right back all season, and perhaps no three players showed that better than the three who starred Wednesday night.
“I saw it all,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “I saw it first shift. Ovi’s been on a mission.”
It took just 62 seconds for Ovechkin to make his mark on the game. On his first shift, center Evgeny Kuznetsov flicked a pass to him at the top of the left faceoff circle, and Ovechkin one-timed it, a fluttering, knuckling puck that got past Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy. Ovechkin’s career has been a highlight reel of laser shots like that one but also pained expressions in May.
The Capitals saw a more determined Ovechkin when he returned to Washington two weeks before the start of training camp, seemingly more dedicated to his offseason training. Then he started his assault on the NHL with a league-leading 49 goals. Earlier in this series, Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said he got the sense Ovechkin was taking out 13 years of frustration on one postseason. His first-period goal marked his 12th of these playoffs.
“There were a lot of people doubting if he still had what it took,” Trotz said. “The great players take exception to that. … He said, ‘I’m going to show you I’m still a great player.’ And he did.”
Just as the Capitals seemed on the brink of losing that one-goal lead to start the second period, enter Lars Eller’s chip into the offensive zone bounced off Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi, who had trouble corralling the puck. Burakovsky swiped it from him, dangled around him and then found the small hole between Vasilevskiy’s elbow and pad to extend the Capitals’ lead. That was just the team’s second shot of the frame. All the while, Ovechkin was vocal on the bench, standing and yelling down the line.
When Burakovsky scored his second goal of the period, collecting John Carlson’s bank pass off the boards before placing a shot through Vasilevskiy’s legs, Ovechkin was waiting to bump gloved fists with him on the bench. “[Expletive] right, baby,” he yelled with a grin.
“And then he said, ‘Keep your shifts down a little bit,’ so he was joking a little bit, too,” Burakovsky said.
Devante Smith-Pelly had been knocked out for the game after taking a hit from Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman. Then Capitals blue-liner Brooks Orpik had to be helped off the ice after he was boarded by Cedric Paquette. But as has become this Washington team’s identity, the Capitals embraced the adversity and pushed through it.
Washington had flirted with familiar disaster earlier in the series, losing three straight after winning the first two games of the series on the road, only to stomp on its own franchise narrative again. It’s poetic the Capitals did it in a Game 7. More than a year ago, they deflated in a decisive seventh contest against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, shut out in a 2-0 loss. That marked the end of what General Manager Brian MacLellan had called a “two-year window” with one of the most talented rosters in the organization’s history.
The heartbreak from yet another early exit, especially with a team that loaded, carried over into this season, when Trotz wisely gave his team room to continue grieving. On Wednesday, he helped them feel loose, continuing a road superstition before morning skates by taking a solo lap around the ice as players smacked their sticks against the boards to cheer him on. An offseason with the Vegas expansion draft and salary-cap constraints weakened the roster, veteran and skilled players replaced with rookies and inexpensive free agent additions.
Defenseman Matt Niskanen recalled telling his wife before the season this team wasn’t as good on paper, “but watch, this will be the year that we do something.”
“I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win,” Holtby said. “Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill or been better on paper or whatever. But this team, everyone knows their role and everyone wants to pitch in and everyone is comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident and confident in each other. We don’t get down on each other. It’s a strong group and that’s extremely hard to come by and something that we’re going need to have going forward to be our best and be a strong team.”
The new additions brought growing pains, but they also didn’t have the same “baggage,” as veteran center Jay Beagle put it, as the longtime Capitals who had endured multiple playoff disappointments. But ultimately, it was on Washington’s longest-tenured players to be the difference.
Ovechkin didn’t shy away from the enormity of the moment. His own legacy has an asterisk next to it: one of the greatest players the NHL has ever seen but still not a champion.
“Of course, you have dreams, you have thoughts,” Ovechkin said Tuesday. “Right now, you in this position, you just don’t want to give up this opportunity.”
He added that Game 7 was “the biggest game in our life, maybe.”
Ovechkin then ensured bigger games are to come.
Forget all you have learned: This postseason has been about smashing narratives, and the Caps took a sledgehammer to the franchise’s biggest narrative of all with their Game 7 win. This is a franchise whose lowest moments have come in Game 7s, with a 4-11 all-time record in those deciding games entering this postseason. No team has played more Game 7s since 2008, and Alex Ovechkin’s crew had won just three of 10 previous chances. But if the Caps felt the pressure, they never showed it, taking the lead on Ovechkin’s goal just 62 seconds in and then somehow expanding their lead even as the Lightning dominated play. It was the first Game 7 home loss in Tampa’s 25-year history, and perhaps the most significant win in Washington’s. The Caps have now won 1 of their past 1 Game 7s.
The win was a landmark moment not just for the hockey franchise, but for all of Washington sports. The Caps made their only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals 20 years ago; since then Washington’s well-chronicled playoff struggles have given the city a reputation for sporting misery. Aside from D.C. United, the city’s pro sports teams haven’t won a title since the 1992 Super Bowl, one of the longest droughts of any major U.S. city. The Caps can now end that drought with one more series win.
There’s no place like home, except the road: The Caps continued their astounding success away from home in these playoffs, improving to 8-2 away from Capital One Arena in this postseason. (They are 4-5 at home.) The Tampa crowd was never a factor Wednesday after Ovechkin’s early goal; Washington similarly negated the away crowd during blowout wins in the first two games of this series. Perhaps that bodes well for the Stanley Cup finals; the Vegas Golden Knights will have home-ice advantage, and the championship series will begin there Monday. (Vegas has a 6-1 home record in these playoffs.)
The goal and the goalie: Washington’s two most decorated stars, in the biggest game of their careers, were perhaps the most impactful players on the ice. Ovechkin, the captain, set the tone immediately with his unstoppable blast from his favorite spot on the ice, continuing his brilliant postseason. (“Never seen him play better,” NBC analyst and longtime Ovechkin critic Mike Milbury said at one point.) And former Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby was at least as brilliant, stopping all 29 shots he faced, recording his second straight shutout, and running his scoreless streak to nearly 160 minutes.
Did the numbers lie?: These Capitals argued that their lack of puck possession and shots this season would be counter-balanced by taking better shots, but in truth, the team’s possession stats have steadily improved throughout the season. The first two periods of Wednesday’s game, though, were a Tampa possession-fest: the Lightning had more shots, better shots, more dangerous opportunities, and seemed always to have the puck. But the Capitals dominated play in the third period, refusing to turtle and creating the period’s best chances. It was a strong ending to a strong night.
Final: Washington Capitals 4, Tampa Bay Lightning 0
Good night. The Capitals ended any drama with a Nicklas Backstrom goal with less than four minutes remaining, setting off a joyous celebration on Washington’s bench. Hedman, the Tampa veteran, coughed up the puck in his own zone, Jay Beagle brought the puck in front of the Tampa net, and Backstrom — in his 11th career Game 7 — put the puck in an empty net. The Capitals will advance to the Stanley Cup finals. So: Is the Luxor too downscale?
Two breakaways: As the Lightning attempt one final bit of desperation, the Caps keep finding themselves alone in front of Andrei Vasilevskiy. First Chandler Stephenson, and then Alex Ovechkin surged in alone on Tampa’s net but were turned away, keeping the score 3-0. Is it too late for Washingtonians to make a Memorial Day getaway to Vegas? Expect a whole lot of red around that town next weekend. If. You know.
Holtby’s streak: Washington’s goalie, according to NBC, has now stopped 56 consecutive shots, with a scoreless streak of better than 150 minutes. If he gets it past 159 minutes, the Capitals can start deciding whether or not to stay on the Strip next week. There are pluses and minuses.
Nine minutes away: With a touch more than nine minutes remaining, the Capitals were still leading, 3-0. Not much else to say, really. Just thought you might want to know. The Caps, incidentally, have steadily chipped away at Tampa’s edge in shots, despite having a multi-goal lead, which is the reverse of what usually happens. The tally is now Tampa 22, Washington 20.
Power outage: After dominating the possession for virtually all of the first 40 minutes, the Lightning came out slow in the third, not recording a shot in the first eight minutes. That included a shot-less power play which might have been Tampa’s best chance to finally pierce Holtby, assuming he remains piercable. Meanwhile, in addition to nursing their lead, the Capitals kept peppering the Tampa net.
The shutout continues: Do you remember what Washington’s arena sounded like during the team’s deflating Game 7 loss against the Penguins last spring? Think about the sound a tree makes when it, you know, doesn’t really do anything. That’s what the Tampa crowd sounds like now. And who could blame them: the Lightning are facing their first home Game 7 loss in franchise history.
Orpik returns: After suffering what appeared to be a serious injury following a second-period hit, veteran Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik reappeared on Washington’s bench in the third period. The Lightning, to that point, had been unable to score when Orpik was in the game, and when he was not in the game, and when he was in the dressing room.
The penalty kill steps up: Tampa’s deadly power play got its first chance a bit more than three minutes into the final period after a high-sticking call against Washington’s Matt Niskanen. Both Niskanen and the injured Brooks Orpik typically serve on the penalty kill, putting Washington in an even more precarious spot. But the Lightning’s attempt was disjointed, and the Capitals kept their 3-0 lead. Washington has now killed five straight power plays, and is less than 15 minutes away from the next round of the playoffs, whatever that might be. No big deal.
So much for a quiet offense: The Washington offense emerged from its slumber early in the third period, creating several chances and, more importantly, keeping Tampa in its own end. Evgeny Kuznetsov was perhaps the biggest creator, driving to the net and leaving the puck in a dangerous spot. The Caps, by the way, are less than 17 minutes away from the next round of the playoffs.
Two men missing for Capitals: Both Brooks Orpik and Devante Smith-Pelly, injured earlier in the game, were not on the Caps bench as the third period began. The Caps were undermanned in their previous clinching win, the Game 6 overtime victory in Pittsburgh.
Andre appears: Andre Burakovsky had no goals, seven shot attempts and just one scoring chance heading into this game. Tonight, in less than eight minutes of ice time, has taken three shot attempts — two of those scoring chances — with two goals scored.
End Period 2: Capitals 3, Lightning 0
We’ve seen this game before, the one in which the favored team dominates a Game 7 at home, but the road underdog gets an amazing goaltending performance and a few lucky bounces and scores on seemingly half its chances and is always waiting waiting waiting to take the puck against the run of play and the home crowd just can’t even understand what is happening. Usually, Washington loses those games. After two periods, Washington is winning this one. Tampa has 22 shots but no goals, and Holtby hasn’t been beaten in nearly seven full periods. The Caps are 20 minutes away from a trip to Vegas. Like, a work trip to Vegas.
And another one: With the Lightning still controlling play, John Carlson found a streaking Andre Burakovsky on a breakaway, and he made no mistake, tallying his second goal of the period. It was Washington’s sixth shot of the period, and a stunning moment for Burakovsky, who was scratched in Game 5 of this series. The arena descended into “public library during 90-and-over knitting night” audio levels.
Not a home game: Would you look at that crowd in Chinatown. There were times 10 or 15 years ago that actual home games did not have crowds quite like that.
Brooks Orpik down: With four minutes left in the second period, Cedric Paquette drove Brooks Orpik into the boards behind Holtby’s net. The hit left Orpik, who has a history of concussions, facedown on the ice for at least a minute. Paquette was not penalized.
A breakaway, but no break for Tampa: Alex Killorn got the puck on a breakaway late in the second period, but was unable to beat Braden Holtby. Since there is apparently no way to jinx him, we’ll note that Holtby’s scoreless streak is now well over 130 minutes.
The goals are more valuable, but … : The Capitals are struggling to make stuff happen. They have just two shots halfway through the second period and trail Tampa Bay in scoring chances (16 to 8 ) and shot attempts in the slot and the crease (7 to 1). Not sure how much longer they can fend the Lightning off.
Balanced scoring: Andre Burakovsky became the 17th different player to score at least one goal for the Capitals during this postseason. The NHL record of 21 different scorers was set by the Philadelphia Flyers in 1987. The Flyers advanced to that season’s Stanley Cup finals.
Rocking the Red: Washington fans have been waiting for a chance like this for 20 years, and so thousands poured into Capital One Arena Wednesday night to watch Game 7 with fellow travelers. They seemed to enjoy Andre Burakovsky’s goal. A little.
Against the run of play: With the Lightning dominating in every way but one, the Caps suddenly answered, turning a quiet arena even quieter. A puck flung into the mid-section of defenseman Dan Girardi bounced right to the previously silent Andre Burakovsky, who gathered the puck and flicked a shot under Andrei Vasilevskiy’s right arm, the same place Alex Ovechkin beat him in the first period. The goal came on just Washington’s second shot of the period, nearly 10 minutes in. But no one in white was complaining.
All the numbers except one: “It has been all Lightning lately,” NBC’s Emrick said, and indeed, it’s hard to remember those early moments of this game when the Caps seemed set to dominate. Nearing the game’s midway point, the Lightning had large advantages in shots (18-10), hits (23-17) and faceoffs won (14-9).
No shot, no chaser: The Caps needed nearly five minutes to take their first shot of the second period, while the Lightning maintained their assault. Still, there were no goals.
Doc Emrick is screaming: Not long after hitting the pipe, Victor Hedman got below the goal line and pushed the puck behind Holtby to Yanni Gourde, who was staring at both the hockey puck and a completely empty net. His stick and the puck didn’t connect, though, and the Caps somehow survived what appeared to be a certain goal. So, presumably, did Emrick.
Holtby under pressure: The Lightning continued to create chances right in front of Holtby’s net, with Tampa’s biggest stars — Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman — peppering Holtby in dangerous situations. A Hedman blast early in the second period pinged off a Capitals player’s skate and then off the pipe to Holtby’s right, but the Lightning remained scoreless.
Holtby is good: With a scoreless first period, Braden Holtby extended his scoreless stretch to more than 119 minutes. (No jinx.) The Lightning scored early in the second period of Game 5, and haven’t scored since. (No jinx.) His rebound control perhaps left something to be desired in the first period, but for the Caps, the scoreboard did not. No jinx.
It’s not all good for Caps: Washington is better in the one stat that matters, as the Capitals lead 1-0 after the first period, but it is only a matter of time before Tampa Bay gets a goal (or two) of their own if these shooting trends continue. The Lightning had a 10-to-5 edge in even-strength scoring chances, including a 4-to-1 advantage in shot attempts in the slot and the crease. Seven different Tampa Bay skaters had at least one scoring chance in that frame with Alex Killorn, Brayden Point and Chris Kunitz each chipping in two. Braden Holtby was not breached, however.
End Period 1: Capitals 1, Lightning 0
The teams continued to trade haymakers even after the feisty heavyweights stopped punching each other in the head. Both teams had opportunities in the final five minutes, but the score remained unchanged, with Alex Ovechkin’s goal standing up. (Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn’s fight, by the way, was the first in an NHL Game 7 in more than a year.) Shots at the end of the first period were 10-9 Lightning, but NBC analyst Eddie Olczyk compared Washington’s defensive performance to the all-hands-on-deck showing in Game 6 against Pittsburgh, arguing that the Caps were successfully taking away offensive lanes from Tampa.
EVERYTHING IS HAPPENING: Who wants a bit of Game 7 fisticuffs? Caps heavyweight Tom Wilson tangled with Tampa defenseman Braydon Coburn not long after both players got out of the penalty box following matching unsportsmanlike calls. This time, they traded haymakers, and were both saluted by their teams before leaving the ice with matching major penalties. Wilson appeared angered by Coburn having ripped off Evgeny Kuznetsov’s jersey during a scrum in front of the Tampa net. But it’s not like Kuznetsov was naked or anything.
Oshie shaken up: T.J. Oshie joined Smith-Pelly in the line of fire, blocking a ferocious slap shot of his own shortly after Smith-Pelly reappeared. Oshie retreated to the bench with some difficulty.
Smith-Pelly returns: The Caps forward was back on the bench with seven minutes left in the first period, looking none the worse for wear after taking a shot to his head earlier in the period.
A huge reversal: After Washington’s lightning-quick surge to start the game (ahem), the tide turned. The Caps didn’t record a shot on goal in a stretch lasting nearly 10 minutes, and the Lightning recorded nine consecutive shots. The Caps finally threatened Vasilevskiy, with Ovechkin unable to beat his countryman’s flopping legs. The resulting scrum led to matching unsportsmanlike calls for Tom Wilson and Braydon Coburn.
A scary moment: Caps forward Devante Smith-Pelly sold out to block a blast from Ryan McDonagh, going down to the ice. He blocked the shot, but the puck crashed into the back of his head or neck, and he immediately grabbed at his head with both hands. Smith-Pelly, a key contributor in these playoffs, headed straight to the Washington dressing room.
Tampa’s alive: Tampa recovered from Washington’s early onslaught, and nearly six minutes into the game, Alex Killorn had a golden chance in front of the net. But his backhand was confidently snagged by Braden Holtby, coming off his first shutout of the season.
Another chance: Before two minutes were gone, the Capitals earned a power-play opportunity, with the penalty drawn by Lars Eller against Brayden Point. The Caps generated several stellar chances with the man advantage, with an unmarked Jakub Vrana ringing a shot off the post, but they were unable to add to their lead. The penalty kill gave the Tampa crowd a tiny jolt of life.
Alex Ovechkin makes an immediate impact: Alex Ovechkin blasted Washington into the lead just 62 seconds into the game, aided by a Tom Wilson hit on Chris Kuntiz in the neutral zone that forced a turnover. Evgeny Kuznetsov found Ovechkin at his trademark spot, and he beat Andrei Vasilevskiy short side to put Washington on top. The voices of the bellowing Caps could be heard in the near-silent arena.
Lightning shaking up lines?: The Bolts looked a little different during pre-game warmups. Here’s how they lined up during rushes:
Alex Killorn-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov
Ondrej Palat-Brayden Point-Tyler Johnson
Yanni Gourde-Anthony Cirelli-J.T. Miller
Chris Kunitz-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan
Victor Hedman-Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh-Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn-Mikhail Sergachev
The Lightning previously sported a different look in warmups this series, then reverted to different line combos, so there’s no guarantee this is how the Bolts will start Game 7. And if they find themselves trailing, you can bet head coach Jon Cooper will make some more alterations.
Point could be a problem: Brayden Point, not Steven Stamkos or Nikita Kucherov, might be the toughest player for Washington to stop in Game 7. The 22-year-old center has three goals and three assists, plus a team-high 13 high-danger scoring chances — the only skater on the team in double digits — with five of those shot attempts in the slot or crease on the power play. Point has also been credited with four takeaways, three blocked shots and two hits, giving his skill set a very physical component.
Capitals benefiting from deep scoring lineup: Washington, more so than Tampa Bay, is getting secondary scoring. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Devante Smith-Pelly and Brett Connolly share the team lead for even-strength goals scored in this series with two. Forwards Alex Ovechkin, Jay Beagle, Lars Eller and Tom Wilson plus defensemen Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov each have one. Twelve of Washington skaters have aat least two even-strength points, double that of Tampa Bay’s roster.
Plus, the Lightning have only six skaters with at least a goal scored skating 5-on-5.
One notable exception left off the scoresheet at even strength for Washington is Nicklas Backstrom. He has no goals or assists at 5-on-5 but he does have six shots on net and four scoring chances. To be fair, he did miss the first few games, but if the Capitals are going to move on to the Stanley Cup finals they will need their second-line center contributing more than solely in the face off dot.
Can Caps’ D keep it up?: Washington’s defense, including Braden Holtby in net, has been a huge asset in this series. The Capitals have allowed 24 shots and 25 scoring chances per game, significantly less than the Lightning, 35 and 30, respectively. Andrei Vasilevskiy has been better at stopping all pucks, however, including those from the high-danger areas such as the slot and the crease (.939 save percentage). In a winner-take-all contest like tonight’s Game 7, it usually comes down to which goaltender is playing at the top of his game. Based on volume, that should be Holtby. Looking at clutch play, signs point to Vasilevskiy.
Washington’s expected lineup
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson
Jakub Vrana-Nicklas Backsrom-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Lars Eller-Brett Connolly
Chandler Stephenson-Jay Beagle-Devante Smith-Pelly
Michal Kempny-John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-Christian Djoos
Braden Holtby (starter)
Tampa Bay’s expected lineup
Ondrej Palat-Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov
Yanni Gourde-Brayden Point-Tyler Johnson
Alex Killorn-Anthony Cirelli-J.T. Miller
Chris Kunitz-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan
Victor Hedman-Dan Girardi
Ryan McDonagh-Anton Stralman
Braydon Coburn-Mikahil Sergachev
Andrei Vasilevskiy (starter)