The 2016-17 season ended in familiar pain for the Washington Capitals — a Game 7 playoff elimination at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The summer that followed showed why Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan believed 2017 represented the end of a two-year window for the team to win the Stanley Cup. Three top-six defensemen disappeared from the roster along with two top-six forwards.
The remnant was expected to play well, but a Stanley Cup run in 2018 seemed a suspect assumption after such a talent drain. And yet here the Capitals are, hoisting the franchise’s first Stanley Cup after navigating a strange and surprising season in which they defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in the finals.
What follows is a comprehensive recounting of the key moments that molded the Capitals into their current shape and brought them the ultimate prize for the first time in team history.
May 10: The Capitals fall in yet another second-round series to the Penguins, going out with a whimper in a 2-0 loss in Game 7. The defeat concludes what General Manager Brian MacLellan had called a two-year window for the team and sets up an offseason of change, with 11 players entering either restricted or unrestricted free agency.
June 21: Rising star and fan favorite Nate Schmidt is selected by Vegas in the NHL’s expansion draft.
June 23: Before the first round of the NHL draft begins, the Caps sign right wing T.J. Oshie to an eight-year, $46 million deal. Oshie was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent July 1.
July 1: Longtime defensive stalwart Karl Alzner signs as a free agent with the Montreal Canadiens. Rental defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk signs with the New York Rangers, capping an unsuccessful few months to end the season in Washington. Veteran winger Justin Williams, brought in for his playoff mastery, signs as a free agent with the Carolina Hurricanes.
July 2: The Caps sign restricted free agent center Evgeny Kuznetsov to an eight-year, $62.4 million contract extension and trade winger Marcus Johansson to the New Jersey Devils for second- and third-round picks.
July 3: The Caps sign winger Devante Smith-Pelly to a one-year deal for the league minimum of $650,000. Washington is his fourth team since he entered the league in 2011.
Sept. 15: The Caps open training camp, needing to replace three forwards and two top-six defensemen.
Oct. 4: Forward Alex Chiasson, with Washington since training camp, signs a one-year contract, officially joining his fourth team in six years. Veteran forward Daniel Winnik signs as a free agent with the Minnesota Wild.
Oct. 7: Alex Ovechkin becomes just the fourth player — and the first in 100 years — to open the season with back-to-back hat tricks, scoring four goals in Washington’s home opener as the Caps improve to 2-0.
Oct. 11: The Caps lose, 3-2, to the Pittsburgh Penguins in their first meeting since the playoff loss. Rookie Christian Djoos records a goal and an primary assist in his debut.
Oct. 14: With their blue line depleted, the Caps get thrashed in Philadelphia, 8-2, in rookie Madison Bowey’s debut.
Oct. 24: Forward Andre Burakovsky has surgery on his left thumb, a significant blow to Washington’s depth. He misses about six weeks.
Oct. 29: The Caps finish a Canadian road swing 1-2, leaving their record at 5-6-1. It’s the last time they are below .500 during the season.
Nov. 14: Defenseman Matt Niskanen returns to the lineup after missing 13 games with a left hand injury.
Nov. 16: The Caps earn a verbal thrashing from Coach Barry Trotz after a 6-2 loss in Colorado. It’s the first time Washington has lost consecutive games by at least three goals since January 2014.
Dec. 4: Rookie forward Travis Boyd, who owns the longest active consecutive games streak in the American Hockey League, makes his NHL debut.
Dec. 19: A 4-3 overtime decision in Dallas gives the Caps wins in four straight games and in eight of their past nine. The spurt completes Washington’s rise from sixth to first in the Metropolitan Division.
Dec. 20: The Caps claim Australian forward Nathan Walker off waivers. Walker was waived by Washington in early December, claimed by Edmonton and then waived by Edmonton.
Dec. 23: The Caps allow three first-period goals and lose, 3-0, in their first trip to Las Vegas. They enter the Christmas break tied for second place in the Metropolitan Division.
Jan. 3: Ovechkin finishes as the top vote-getter in the Metropolitan Division, making him a captain for the upcoming NHL All-Star Game.
Jan. 25: Ovechkin notches his 500th career assist, only the second man in franchise history to reach that number after Nicklas Backstrom. He becomes the fourth active player with 500 goals and 500 assists.
Jan. 28: Ovechkin, Trotz and goaltender Braden Holtby represent the Capitals at the All-Star Game in Tampa. It’s Ovechkin’s seventh appearance and Holtby’s third. It’s also the second time in three years Trotz has been behind the bench at an All-Star Game.
Feb. 10: Third-line center Lars Eller signs a five-year, $17.5 million contract to remain in Washington. He was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the season.
Feb. 17: A group of fans is ejected from United Center in Chicago after directing racist remarks toward Smith-Pelly, who is black. Tom Wilson scores his 10th goal, reaching double digits for the first time.
Feb. 19: The Caps acquire defenseman Michal Kempny from the Chicago Blackhawks for a 2018 third-round draft pick.
Feb. 21: The Caps trade a 2019 fifth-round pick to Montreal for defenseman Jakub Jerabek, while journeyman defenseman Taylor Chorney is claimed on waivers by the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Feb. 26: The trade deadline passes without the Caps making any additional moves.
March 3: The Caps flash their finest form in a 5-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs during an outdoor Stadium Series game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
March 6: Holtby allows three goals on Anaheim’s first nine shots and is pulled in a 4-0 loss to the Ducks.
March 9: The team confirms that MacLellan signed a multiyear contract extension near the end of his fourth season running the club.
March 12: Ovechkin becomes just the 20th player in NHL history to score 600 goals and just the fourth to reach that mark in fewer than 1,000 games.
March 16: During a road win over the Islanders, Oshie ends a 19-game goal-scoring drought.
March 28: Winger Shane Gersich makes his NHL debut, a few days after leaving the University of North Dakota early.
March 30: While idle, the Capitals clinch their 10th playoff berth in 11 seasons and fourth straight under Trotz.
April 1: The Caps claim their third straight Metropolitan Division title with a 3-1 win over the Penguins in Pittsburgh. Ovechkin notches his 1,000th career game.
April 10: Trotz names Philipp Grubauer the starting goaltender for Washington’s playoff opener.
April 15: The Caps lose their second consecutive overtime game to Columbus after blowing a second consecutive two-goal lead at home and trail 2-0 in the best-of-seven first-round series. Grubauer is replaced by Holtby in the loss, but Ovechkin guarantees the Caps will win the next two games, which they do.
April 17: With Holtby back in the net, the Caps get a rebound goal from Eller nine minutes into double overtime, winning Game 3, 3-2, to stave off disaster.
April 23: The Capitals knock off Columbus in Game 6, 6-3, winning their fourth straight playoff game. Washington advances to the second round for the fourth consecutive season, a first in franchise history.
April 29: The Capitals salvage a 1-1 split at home by beating Pittsburgh in Game 2, 4-1, thanks to a brilliant first period and a controversial no-goal call that goes against the Penguins.
May 2: Wilson is suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Zach Aston-Reese during Game 3.
May 3: Ovechkin is held without a shot on goal in a playoff game for just the third time, and the Caps lose Game 4 in Pittsburgh, 3-1. The series is tied 2-2.
May 5: Jakub Vrana, a healthy scratch in Game 2 of the first round, scores the game-winning goal in a 6-3 win over the Penguins in Game 5. Backstrom misses most of the third period with what appeared to be a hand injury.
May 7: Kuznetsov buries a breakaway in overtime to give Washington a 2-1 win in Game 6, putting the Caps in the conference finals for the first time in 20 years. Washington was without three of its regular top-six forwards and played five rookies in the clinching game.
May 13: The Caps score five straight goals to rout the Lightning in Tampa, 6-2, taking a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
May 17: Backstrom returns and the Caps carry play, but goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is nearly unbeatable, and the Lightning wins its second straight game in Washington to even the series.
May 21: In perhaps the most impressive game of the Alex Ovechkin era — or maybe in the history of the franchise — the Capitals bulldoze the Lightning, 3-0, in Game 6. Holtby turns in his first shutout of the season, and Oshie notches two goals, including the winner.
May 23: History. Ovechkin gives Washington the lead just 62 seconds in, Holtby records a second straight shutout, and the Caps are on to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time in 20 years, finishing off Tampa Bay, 4-0.
May 30: The Capitals earn the franchise’s first victory in a Stanley Cup finals series— 3-2 over the Vegas Golden Knights — in unlikely and spectacular fashion. Veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik scores his first goal in more than two years, and Holtby makes it hold up with a sprawling stop of Alex Tuch from point-blank range with two minutes left.
June 2: Ovechkin scores the first goal in a dominating effort that gives the Capitals their first home Stanley Cup finals win in franchise history.
June 7: Trailing 3-2 after two periods, the Capitals get the equalizer from Smith-Pelly with just more than 10 minutes left and the winning goal from Eller two and a half minutes later to secure the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship. Ovechkin wins the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs.