Brian MacLellan’s job was to listen. The Washington Capitals players who skulked into his office last May were wounded. They had lost, yet again, in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. They had lost, yet again, to the Pittsburgh Penguins. At one point in the franchise’s development, the idea of winning the Cup seemed inevitable. Last May, it felt all but impossible.
MacLellan had just finished his third season as the Capitals’ general manager. He conducted exit interviews with each player. Upheaval was coming, and everyone knew it. The Capitals could not afford to keep everyone who had helped them to back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies for posting the best record in the regular season — and back-to-back heartache against Pittsburgh in the playoffs.
“Some of the feedback was — actually, quite a bit of it was — to make a change in some of the core,” MacLellan said. “The general information I got from everybody was: ‘This is not working. We need to try something different.’ ”
The Capitals had decisions to make about all aspects of their roster and coaching staff. Alex Ovechkin, the captain and a Hall of Famer-to-be, was coming off a season in which he seemed slower, one in which he produced less. Nicklas Backstrom, the Swedish center who was second to Ovechkin in tenure, said quite succinctly, “Obviously, something needs to change.”
The last interview MacLellan had was with Barry Trotz, who had just completed his third year as coach. MacLellan gave Trotz the assessments that the players shared. Not all of it was pretty. He said to Trotz, “It’s a pretty fragile group.”
“Guys were honest,” MacLellan said. “They actually said what they felt. But that shows they care.”
Trotz, for his part, put off exit interviews of his own because, as he saw it, no one could have anything positive to say in such a negative situation. “Some guys were putting blame at the feet of teammates, coaches, stupid stuff — how thick the towels are,” Trotz said. Instead, Trotz took what MacLellan told him and waited. He then started calling some of the Capitals’ leaders who were assured to be a part of the team going forward, among them veteran defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, Backstrom and center Jay Beagle.
“How can we keep improving?” he asked them.
MacLellan huddled with his most trusted advisers, including director of player personnel Chris Patrick and pro scouts such as Jason Fitzsimmons, Brian Sutherby and Matt Bradley, once a Capitals player. They enlisted the help of analytics gurus Tim Barnes and H.T. Lenz. They pored over the roster.
Would they bring back free agent forward T.J. Oshie? Could they find a place for veteran leader Justin Williams? Longtime defenseman Karl Alzner was certain to leave as a free agent, but could they find a replacement on the penalty kill? More to the point: Could Backstrom and Ovechkin and Beagle and defenseman John Carlson and goalie Braden Holtby — who had played together for at least seven years — win the Stanley Cup together?
“You go through the exercise of it: Who are you going to move? How does that make us better?” MacLellan said. “The answer is: It doesn’t make us better. You examine your core guys, and you go, ‘Yeah, maybe you could move one.’ But we came to the conclusion that it doesn’t make sense.”
The 2016-17 Washington Capitals were built to win the Stanley Cup. They did not. The 2017-18 Capitals were not built to win the Stanley Cup. But they did. In order for Ovechkin to lift the Cup on Thursday night in Las Vegas, in order for him to hand it to Backstrom, moments had to break their way, and decisions had to turn out to be right. But the entire endeavor was rooted in the devastation wrought by the 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh in the seventh game of the second round of the playoffs that ended the 2016-17 season.
“Losing is like losing someone close,” Trotz said. “It’s hard. It affects people differently. Some people can let it go and get motivated. Other people can’t get over it.”
MacLellan made his moves. He allowed Williams and Alzner to leave via free agency. He bet on the leadership of Oshie and signed him to an eight-year contract. He bet on the skill and potential of center Evgeny Kuznetsov and issued another eight-year contract. He exposed rising young defenseman Nate Schmidt to the expansion draft — and lost him to the Vegas Golden Knights. He traded forward Marcus Johansson for draft picks.
The loss to Pittsburgh was painful. The losses for the roster were palpable.
“Obviously,” Ovechkin said on the first day of training camp, “it was a tough summer for our organization.”
MacLellan, though, bristled at the notion that his team wouldn’t compete. When he prepared for a media teleconference following Kuznetsov’s contract extension in July, he looked not just at the roster but at specific lineups. He shook his head.
“The whole perception outside was really negative,” MacLellan said. “I was getting frustrated. How do people say this is not a good team?”
The Capitals had to push past the trauma provided by the Penguins. They had to deal with the loss of players they liked. They had to adjust to young players who couldn’t be expected to assimilate themselves smoothly. And they had to figure out a way to expect more of themselves when everyone else expected less of them.
“You can lie there and cry, or you can invest yourself and get [angry],” Trotz said. “I think we had a [screw-it] attitude. We really did, when we finally got it right. But I think it took us a while to get through a lot of that self-pity.”
It’s one thing to have a logical and intellectual understanding that a team isn’t what it once was, that bumps were inevitable. It’s another thing to live through it. The Capitals opened the 2017-18 season with a pair of victories. But the bumps were coming.
“It’s almost how I imagine an addict would be,” Oshie said. “You get that winning feeling. I know the past two years, we were very disappointed we lost to Pittsburgh in the playoffs. But we still continuously had that winning feeling, where every game we went into we were like, ‘We have a good chance to win this.’ ”
The normal injuries that NHL teams must endure weighed on these Capitals more than they had previous versions, because these Capitals simply weren’t as deep or as durable. On Oct. 13, Niskanen injured his left hand; he missed more than a month. On Oct. 21, forward Andre Burakovsky injured his left thumb; he required surgery and wouldn’t play again until December. Five days later, during a miserable 6-2 loss at Vancouver that dropped them under .500, forward Brett Connolly suffered a concussion; he would miss seven games.
The lineups included many of the core players MacLellan had elected to keep together. But on a given night, they included rookies and journeymen, too — Madison Bowey and Aaron Ness and Christian Djoos and Anthony Peluso and Taylor Chorney.
“When things go right, it’s fine,” MacLellan said in November. “The big concern is when it doesn’t. When it starts to go the other way, do they lose confidence? We have to hope we didn’t expose the younger players too much. But we don’t have much of a choice.”
Their performances were uneven, and there were times that the dressing room almost palpably missed the departed players. Trotz and his staff were learning the new players, including veterans such as Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly.
“Take someone like Chiasson,” Trotz said. “We didn’t know Alex Chiasson. So what’s his role? How do we know?”
That was just the logistical part of the adjustment — putting pegs into holes. But with each game early in the 2017-18 season, there was a sense of what was lost in 2016-17. Backstrom’s body language was poor. Backup goalie Philipp Grubauer lost his first eight decisions. As the Capitals headed to a key two-game road trip to Nashville and Colorado in mid-November, there were problems up and down the lineup — and with the coaching staff. With no contract for the following season, Trotz was, in effect, coaching for his job, with the knowledge that Todd Reirden, one of the assistants who stood behind the bench with him every night, would probably be tapped to replace him.
Trotz, though, couldn’t think about his future. In order to have one, he had to manage his team.
“We had to let the healing process take effect,” Trotz said in December. “You couldn’t say, ‘Okay, today we’re going to be good.’ There was a lot of healing that had to go on. And the coaches were mad at me because I wouldn’t let them do any meetings. So we weren’t quite as prepared, but the players, they weren’t ready to listen. It’s just like anything: If you’re a student and you don’t want to be there, you’re not going to learn. Everybody was still hurting. So we, as a group, backed off.”
As a team-building strategy, though, that could only last for so long. Complicating the dynamic for Trotz was the fact that the Capitals’ front office hadn’t permitted Reirden to interview for head coaching jobs during the offseason. He had been promoted to associate coach in 2016 and given more responsibility. MacLellan was grooming him to be the head coach, should a change need to be made.
That, understandably, strained relationships on the coaching staff. Trotz had brought assistant Lane Lambert with him from his days in Nashville. Blaine Forsythe was a holdover from a series of Washington head coaches. MacLellan and Trotz brought in Reirden from Pittsburgh, where he had served as a head coach in the minors and an assistant with the Penguins.
As the Capitals sailed to the Presidents’ Trophy the previous two seasons, the coaching staff chugged along. But losing makes everything harder. On Nov. 14 in Nashville, Holtby allowed six goals in the first two periods of a lousy 6-3 loss. The stakes, for the coaches, grew dire. The players could feel it.
“There was a lot of noise going on, and it wasn’t happening right away,” Niskanen said. “Sometimes people in charge pull the trigger on something. They don’t have the patience to see it out and see what it may become.”
That’s what MacLellan had to balance: patience with a group he knew couldn’t match the regular season accomplishments of previous Washington teams, and on the other side a cold and calculating analysis of whether Trotz was the right coach to handle the situation.
“We’re inconsistent,” MacLellan said in November. “The effort’s not always where it should be.”
When the Capitals flew to Denver for a meeting with the down-and-out Avalanche, they were 10-9-1, but only six of those victories had come in regulation. Then, disaster: They allowed a goal on the first shift of the game. They were down 3-0 midway through the second period. They were down 5-1 midway through the third, ultimately falling, 6-2.
“We stunk,” Niskanen said months later.
“We have to look at ourselves,” Ovechkin said that night, “and make changes.”
There are 82 games in an NHL regular season, none more important in the standings than the rest. This, though, felt like a tipping point. Trotz was done backing off. In the dressing room afterward, he lit into his charges. He chastised the group, but he also called out individuals.
“What I said was from my heart,” Trotz said. “It wasn’t about X’s and O’s. It was about what I think they are inside, what they should show — not what they’re showing on the ice right now, because that wasn’t them. It was more about: ‘This is what you really are, and you know it and I know it. Now let’s show it and not this [stuff] that we’re showing now, because this is not you guys.’ ”
Players have not spoken publicly about precisely what Trotz said. But two things were clear: His speech was unprecedented, and it got their attention.
“Trotzy said some words that I think were necessary for people to hear, words that he had never really said to us before,” Oshie said. “I think it kind of hit home for some guys.”
In the past, had such a tirade been necessary, Trotz would have been able to add, emphatically, that he would continue to be their coach, but that the players’ minutes on the ice — their jobs — were at stake. After that game in Denver, he couldn’t make such a claim. The Capitals played Minnesota at home two days later. Lose that game, and there were people in the organization who were sure Trotz would be fired.
“I think with my situation, I would say that all year you felt like that,” Trotz said. “But I got over that. I probably made jokes about it.”
The flight back from Denver was quiet. The coaching staff knew what was at stake. “I even said to the coaches, ‘Okay, the Minnesota game will tell you if they took it to heart and they’re listening,’ ” Trotz said. “ ‘If they’re not listening, then we’ll know.’ ”
That night, in their 21st game, Holtby made 30 saves, Oshie and Kuznetsov scored on the power play, and the Capitals beat the Wild, 3-1. When a loss to Calgary followed, Trotz was asked why he wouldn’t reunite Backstrom and Ovechkin on the same line. “Don’t feel like it,” he said tersely. That day after practice, Trotz stood against the glass at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the team’s practice facility in Arlington, taking in a high school game that had followed Washington’s practice.
“I’m looking to see if they have a defenseman for me,” he joked. It was humor as a shield. His team had issues. It was his job to manage them — or it wouldn’t be his job anymore.
The next night, the Capitals hosted Ottawa. Ovechkin and Backstrom were together again. Ovechkin scored near the end of the first period, a goal on which Backstrom had an assist. The Capitals won, 5-2. And they were off — 11 wins in 13 games, a rise from dissension to cohesion that could not have been predicted in that dressing room in Denver. The Capitals were adjusting to who they had to be, not who they once were. They were a team that could not just show up and win. They had to work.
“We had to win in a lot harder ways than we had to before,” Orpik said. “It came a lot tougher to us, whereas the last couple years, with the team we had, wins came a lot easier than they did this year. Everything we got this year, we had to earn.”
Over the summer, Trotz was visiting one of his sons, who was working in Russia. Moscow is where Ovechkin lives in the offseason. It’s his city. So the coach texted his star: Do you want to meet up?
“We’re sort of kindred spirits,” Trotz said much later, and he knew the history they shared, even if it brought pain. Each had been successful in the regular season. Neither had ventured past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Ovechkin in 12 seasons as a player, Trotz in 18 as an NHL head coach.
Ovechkin picked Trotz up at his hotel near Moscow’s Red Square. They drove through the neighborhoods where Ovechkin spent his youth, then they stopped at a restaurant. Trotz was honest with an assessment MacLellan shared: The NHL was getting younger and faster, and Ovechkin had to regain his speed or be left behind.
“You can’t ease yourself into the season,” Trotz said, recalling his conversation with Ovechkin. “You’re going to have to say that, ‘This is 82 hard games,’ and I’m going to lean on you more. You’re going to have to embrace it, or it’s going to have to get even tougher with the, ‘He can’t do it anymore.’ . . . It’s got to be more consistent.”
Ovechkin celebrated his 32nd birthday in September. “It’s just the beginning,” he wrote in an Instagram post in his native Russian and in English.
But when his 13th season opened the following month, what was beginning seemed more likely to be a decline than an ascent. Not only was the roster around Ovechkin diminished, but there were questions about whether his aging legs could keep up with a league that was getting younger and faster.
“It’s just a situation when you have to be focusing more on some details on your body,” Ovechkin said as training camp opened. “Especially when you get hurt, you have to do some different stuff.”
In 2016-17, Ovechkin scored 33 goals, the second-lowest output he had produced in an 82-game season. More concerning for the Capitals: Just 16 of those goals came at even strength, his personal low for a season not interrupted by labor strife. Ovechkin was still a force on the power play. But during the playoffs against Pittsburgh, Trotz demoted him to the third line. There were questions about whether he would ever be a centerpiece of a team again.
Ovechkin, on the first day of 2017-18 training camp, was plain-spoken about where he was in his career. “Goals is not my goal right now,” he said. “The goal: I want to win a Stanley Cup, and that’s my priority.”
As unlikely as the Capitals seemed to win the Stanley Cup after their summer of unrest, they were even less likely if Ovechkin didn’t, somehow, develop into a force again.
“The fact was, he was a little heavy — and slower — last year,” MacLellan said. “He came in, and his weight was about the same, but he came in with a different body composition.”
And then he opened the season with a hat trick in a victory at Ottawa.
And then he scored four goals two nights later as the Capitals won their home opener against Montreal.
“He skated better,” MacLellan said.
The Capitals may have been a lesser team, but Ovechkin was clearly stating that he did not intend to be a lesser player. Six of those seven goals came at even strength. One came by getting to the crease and tipping in a shot by Kuznetsov.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you have to move forward.”
Ovechkin couldn’t keep up that pace, of course, but after 18 games, he had 19 points, including 13 goals.
“He seems to be adjusting,” MacLellan said at that point. “There’s games where, you know, you’re frustrated with him. But you can’t complain about the production. He’s doing it five-on-five. It’s a good start.”
When Ovechkin scored twice and added an assist in a loss at Pittsburgh on Feb. 2, he had 32 goals — 23 of them at even strength. In just 51 games, he had come within one goal of his 2016-17 total, and he had proved himself at five-on-five.
This renaissance, though, did not seem to be the result of external pressure. Rather, the Capitals noticed an internal motivation from their captain. When he scored, he spoke of the role others played. More than a dozen years into his career, he had taken all the arrows — more than any athlete in Washington, more than any player in the NHL.
“He’s not oblivious to all the negativity that was directed toward him when the team wasn’t having success,” Orpik said. “People would just single him out. That was an easy thing to do. I think most guys would have caved a lot earlier than he did. He didn’t really care about that stuff. I think, at the end of the day, he just cared about what the guys in the locker room thought about him.”
On Feb. 7, the day after Ovechkin had two assists — including one that helped set up Backstrom’s game-winner with less than a minute left — at Columbus, the person who knows what he put into this pursuit better than anyone else watched a taped version of that game.
Tatiana Ovechkina, Alex’s mother, was a gold medal-winning Olympic basketball player who later coached powerful Moscow Dynamo. She understands sports, and she understands teams.
As she sat in the family’s breakfast nook in their dacha outside Moscow and watched her son and his teammates beat the Blue Jackets, she spoke optimistically. She liked the Capitals’ mix of experience and youth.
“I just love this group,” she said.
Still, even with her son back to his old form, it needed something else.
The Capitals opened February with a pair of losses, one at Pittsburgh in which Holtby allowed six goals, the next at home to expansion Vegas in which they blew a third-period lead. Still, they clung to the lead in the Metropolitan Division. The trade deadline loomed near the end of the month. The evaluation could have seemed difficult: Was this team worth adding to?
“You wonder what’s going to happen every year,” Orpik said. “Guys get uncomfortable at the trade deadline.”
MacLellan entered the month with a spotty record of midseason acquisitions. In 2015, he added defenseman Tim Gleason and forward Curtis Glencross. The latter was supposed to play on the second line, yet he was scratched three straight games in the playoffs. The following year, he brought in forward Daniel Winnik, who failed to register a point in the postseason. In 2017, as the team barreled to another Presidents’ Trophy, he made his most significant splash, trading two prospects and a first-round draft pick for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
That move was designed to win the Stanley Cup. It didn’t. MacLellan and the players in the dressing room understood the delicate nature of making such an addition. Shattenkirk, for instance, went right onto the Capitals’ top power-play unit, which didn’t really need help. Carlson, the incumbent point man and a player of stature himself, was effectively demoted. It just didn’t click.
“It’s funny,” Orpik said. “Kevin Shattenkirk’s a great player, and I don’t know if he ever completely felt comfortable last year. When he came in, it also kind of pushed Carly into a different role. So it disrupted more than just the slot that he was in. . . . That’s why I think as a GM it’s such a tricky time of the year, trying to figure out if those moves are going to work.”
Much as the salary cap had dictated whom the Capitals could keep heading into the season, so did it dictate the type of player they could obtain midway through the year. “We’re limited,” MacLellan said. Any addition would have to be a low-salary player.
But MacLellan also knew what he wanted: a defenseman who could go get pucks, who could move them and, ideally, who could be a partner with Carlson. “We needed to replace Schmidt,” he said. He and his staff zeroed in on 27-year-old Michal Kempny of the Chicago Blackhawks. Kempny had signed as a free agent a year earlier after playing professionally in his native Czech Republic and in the Kontinental Hockey League, but he was unhappy.
“I asked, a little bit, for the trade because I was staying in one spot, and I didn’t move on,” Kempny said. “As a player, you want to be, every year, better and better, and if [you’re] not playing, you can’t be a better player.”
On Feb. 17, Kempny played against the Capitals in a 7-1 rout for host Chicago that left Washington just one point ahead of Pittsburgh in the Metropolitan Division. They were listing. The Capitals had inquired about some of the best defensemen available — Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers, Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. But they couldn’t afford the contracts or the cost in prospects. Two days later, MacLellan sent a third-round draft pick to Chicago for Kempny.
“He was always Plan A,” MacLellan said.
After a shaky first game at Florida on Feb. 22, Kempny steadied himself. Trotz paired him with Carlson — who, unlike after the addition of Shattenkirk, kept his spot on the top power-play unit.
“Such a good fit,” Niskanen said. “I think he’s underrated. He’s a good complement for John. In general, the more good players you have, the better you’ll do. But it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, teams try to just add the biggest name, and maybe they don’t fit really well. This fit really, really well.”
Many of the Capitals’ rivals in the Eastern Conference — Pittsburgh, Columbus and Tampa Bay — made more significant additions. But the Kempny trade fit for the Capitals — a lower-profile group with more modest expectations.
For all of the Capitals’ uncertainty coming into the season, they could feel good about their situation in net. Holtby began the year as a 28-year-old Vezina Trophy winner, proven and in his prime. Grubauer, who turned 26 in November, was an established backup of both the age and ability that, should the Capitals find the right partner, he could be an attractive piece in a trade.
Yet as February approached its end, Holtby was a mess. He was pulled from a 7-4 loss at Pittsburgh after allowing six goals. He gave up five goals in an overtime loss to Detroit, six more two games later at Chicago and finally four in the first period of a loss at Columbus. In a nine-game stretch unlike any he had experienced in his career, his save percentage — which had been .922 for his career entering the season — was just .873, and his goals against average was 4.62.
“It’s on everybody tonight,” Trotz said after the Columbus game, a 5-1 loss. “Me included.”
Holtby steadied himself with a win in a nationally televised outdoor game against Toronto at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. But when the team headed west for three games in California, there was uncertainty — both in net and behind the bench. Since winning five straight around the new year, Washington had been mediocre — winning just 10 of 22 games, though four of the losses came in overtime.
Then Holtby allowed three goals on the first nine shots he faced in Anaheim. When Trotz yanked him early in the second period, Holtby stormed down the tunnel toward the dressing room. He threw his blocker and stick. When he turned to come back to the bench, he bent over at the waist. Calm by nature, he needed half a minute to collect himself.
“I think my main downfall was I was trying to do too much,” Holtby said. “I was just trying to be perfect, trying to take away every possible way of letting a puck go in, instead of sticking to the principles and just the percentages and work on your habits and stick to your habits and not worry about what could possibly go wrong — try to defend the impossible.”
The organization hadn’t lost confidence in Holtby. “Talent doesn’t go away,” Orpik said. But the coaching staff had to make a change.
The day after the 4-0 loss to the Ducks, Trotz met with Holtby in Los Angeles, where the team played next. Publicly, he said he would give Holtby “a little reset.” Privately, he told Holtby to get back to his foundations, to what made him a superior, athletic goalie. Grubauer, whose .922 save percentage and 2.36 goals against average placed him among the league leaders, would get most of the work. Holtby, who had played at least 63 games in each of the previous three years, would have to improve while watching from the side.
“It stresses me out more to not play,” Holtby said. But he couldn’t allow his teammates to see that. In order for the Capitals to right themselves, their benched goalie couldn’t lament his lost opportunity. He had to prepare for his next one.
“I’ve seen other teammates where an individual situation becomes a distraction for everybody else,” Orpik said. “He was the exact opposite. That’s part of being a good teammate. He knows that. I think he probably knew he was going to get another opportunity. He decided to be sharp when he did get that opportunity.”
But on the California trip, that opportunity didn’t come. Grubauer started the following game in Los Angeles and played well enough, stopping 26 of 28 shots, but the Capitals’ offense sputtered in a 3-1 loss. Pittsburgh had won three in a row to move ahead of the Capitals in the division. Philadelphia was just two points behind. Washington’s next game was at San Jose, where it hadn’t won in regulation in 25 years. If the Capitals lost, changes seemed afoot.
“There were points in the season where the whole thing could have crashed,” MacLellan said. “A couple times.”
That day, March 10, Grubauer was sharp. Backstrom scored late in the second period. San Jose pulled its goalie in the final two minutes, and Lars Eller fired one into the empty net. The Capitals won, 2-0, and moved back into first place.
The flight back to Washington was easier, more relaxed. The Capitals then beat Winnipeg at home in overtime as Ovechkin scored his 600th career goal. They thumped the New York Islanders in a back-to-back, home-and-home set. Instead of reeling, they started to roll.
“That was it — mid-March,” Niskanen said. “It just started to click.”
When they opened April with a 3-1 victory at Pittsburgh, they clinched a division title that just a few weeks earlier had seemed unlikely. A win at St. Louis the next night was their 11th in 13 games. They earned the right to open the playoffs at home against Columbus.
On the morning of May 7, the Capitals awoke at the Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel on the cusp of an accomplishment none of them had experienced: beating the Penguins in a playoff series. There’s almost no overstating the significance of their 3-2 series lead at that point. Ovechkin and Backstrom had lost to the Penguins in 2009, 2016 and 2017. Each time, Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup, which might have been Washington’s. Each time, the Capitals and their fans questioned whether they would ever break through.
But to finally vanquish the Penguins, the Capitals would have to win with a different style than they had become accustomed to playing. For Game 6 of the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, they would be without forward Tom Wilson, who had been suspended by the NHL for three games following a brutal hit in the third game of the series. They would be without Backstrom, who suffered a broken right index finger late in the fourth game.
The lineup that night would consist of some spare parts. Rookies Travis Boyd and Nathan Walker had combined for 17 career NHL games and two career points. Neither had appeared in the playoffs. Both were in the lineup.
Regardless of whom the Capitals were sending on the ice, they carried, collectively, an odd sense of confidence. “It just had a different feel than the past two years against Pittsburgh,” Niskanen said. In the fifth game of the series, they played a miserable second period, their worst of the playoffs, and trailed by a goal. The lineup was in shambles, so Trotz tried something new: moving rookie Jakub Vrana to the top line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin.
In the second game of the Columbus series that opened the playoffs, Trotz had scratched Vrana. “He had that kind of deer-in-the-headlights look,” Trotz said. But on the first shift of the third period of Game 5 against Pittsburgh, Vrana pushed the puck ahead, setting up Kuznetsov on a breakaway that tied the score. Later in the third, he skated with Ovechkin on a two-on-one. When Ovechkin drew Penguins goalie Matt Murray out of position, Vrana easily netted the goal that became the game-winner in a 6-3 victory.
“Sometime in that third period, we started to take over,” Niskanen said. “And that’s when it had a different feel.”
The Capitals’ history with the Penguins, as demoralizing as it might seem, also provided an odd boost. Washington’s core players knew that stalwart Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang had been suspended for a game in their 2016 series. That night, the Penguins won anyway. The Capitals knew Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby sat out one game of their 2017 series with a concussion. That night, the Penguins won anyway.
“They did it to us a few times — Crosby’s out, Letang’s out — and we were never able to take advantage of that opportunity,” MacLellan said. “We’ve talked about it as a group, how disappointed we were in not being able to seize on that weakness. In this situation, we needed to do it to them.”
With Holtby playing his best hockey of the season, the Capitals made it through the first period of Game 6 scoreless. Backstrom, with his right hand heavily wrapped, watched on television from the dressing room. “I feel like I was pretty patient,” he said. Wilson, healthy but harnessed, looked on from a suite.
“It’s really tough,” he said. “I’m sitting in Pittsburgh with their fans, taking absolute abuse from everyone around me, and I can’t go out and play with my guys.”
And then early in the second period, Walker, playing on the fourth line, got the puck behind Pittsburgh’s goal. He found Chiasson, who had yet to register a point in the playoffs, to Murray’s left. Chiasson managed to put the puck between Murray and the near post. The Penguins countered with a goal from Letang, and there was overtime.
There is, perhaps, nothing more fragile in sports than playoff hockey in overtime. Nearly a month earlier, the Capitals had dropped the first two games of the playoffs before pushing Columbus to overtime in Game 3. With 3:30 left in overtime, Blue Jackets forward Cam Atkinson hit the post. What if that puck had gone in? Eller eventually won it in the second overtime.
The same razor’s edge presented itself against Pittsburgh. Less than three minutes into overtime, Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl fired a shot that got past Holtby — and clanged off the post. “Your heart drops a little bit,” Trotz said.
But then Ovechkin found himself with the puck on his stick, and he saw Kuznetsov ahead. No other players on the Capitals, and few in the league, are able to transition from defense to offense as quickly as Kuznetsov. Ovechkin pushed the puck forward. Kuznetsov buried it — and the Penguins.
“I don’t think about history,” Kuznetsov said afterward. But it was inescapable. Backstrom, still in a suit, waited for the on-ice celebration to filter into the dressing room. “I was letting loose,” he said. When Ovechkin came in, he screamed and stomped. He found Backstrom, his partner in so much pain, standing in a threshold. They embraced.
Eventually, Trotz gathered his team. “We’re only halfway there,” he said.
“The goal isn’t to get past the second round,” Beagle said. “The goal is the Stanley Cup.”
There’s little overstating the effect beating Pittsburgh had on the Capitals. The path past the second round into territory never seen by, among others, Ovechkin and Trotz could have come through any two teams in the Eastern Conference. But the fact that the Capitals beat the Penguins gave them the feeling that anything was possible.
“It was like the steam was let out,” MacLellan said. “We started to play more freely.”
What’s more, they had a belief that, whatever the situation, they would respond. Holtby had been the backup for the first two games of the playoffs — and was nearly impenetrable when he returned. Trotz placed Ovechkin and Backstrom on different lines again — and they excelled. The Capitals lost the first two games to Columbus — and then won four straight. They dropped three straight to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals and stood on the brink of elimination — and won the next two games, 3-0 and 4-0.
So by the time they arrived in Las Vegas for the franchise’s first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals in 20 years, they were a team that had distanced itself from all the disappointments of the past. “For whatever reason, with the expectations we had the last couple years — we let those expectations and pressure affect us in probably a negative way,” Orpik said. “We put a lot more pressure on ourselves than we needed to, and some of that external pressure kind of seeped into the room. I think this year, with less expectations, I think we enjoyed winning a lot more.”
And so they kept doing it. They lost Game 1 of the finals to the Vegas Golden Knights, 6-4. Their response: “Weird game,” Trotz said. By that point, there was no wavering.
“I really think that’s some part of the mental toughness part we all of a sudden found,” MacLellan said. “The season was about getting through things. Once you get through them, I think you’re stronger as a group. I think that translated to some of those moments in the playoffs where we just seemed to have a mental toughness that we haven’t had in the past.”
There were, then, only moments to endure. With just more than two minutes to go in Game 2 and the Capitals clinging to a 3-2 lead, Vegas defenseman Shea Theodore played a puck from center ice into the Washington zone. It traveled toward the end boards, where it hit a stanchion. Suddenly, a harmless play became a disaster. The puck took an unexpected bounce across the crease to Holtby’s left. It ended up on the stick of Vegas forward Cody Eakin. Holtby slid to guard against Eakin’s shot. And then Eakin slid the puck across the crease, where Vegas winger Alex Tuch waited.
“I’ve got to bury that,” Tuch said later.
Except Holtby lunged back. He extended his stick. He stopped Tuch’s shot. “Not just getting his paddle on it,” Carlson said. “But the strength he had to hold it.” There was no rebound. Holtby preserved the lead. The Capitals earned the first Stanley Cup finals win in franchise history.
Eight days later, after two dominant wins at home, the Capitals returned to the same ice at T-Mobile Arena, holding a 3-1 series lead. Back in Washington, Capital One Arena was packed with fans watching on the scoreboard. Downtown streets pulsed with people.
The Capitals trailed by a goal heading into the third period. It didn’t matter.
They had trailed in each series and still won. They had trailed the Knights in Game 2 and won.
They had a philosophy, and a belief in it, built over a season that could have come apart — but never did.
“Years past, it felt like we were like, ‘We’re going to win this year,’ ” Oshie said. “This year, it was more like: ‘We’re going to work this year, and we’re going to outwork teams. We’re going to play longer than they are.’ ”
So the Capitals kept playing. Orpik corralled an errant Vegas clearing attempt at the blue line and threw it at the net. Smith-Pelly managed to control the puck with his left skate and, as he fell to the ice, put it in the net to tie the score. Less than three minutes later, Eller fought for position in front of the net. When Connolly let loose a shot from the slot, Eller was there to slide in the rebound — the goal that won the Stanley Cup.
“To me,” Eller said, “there’s 22 stars here tonight.”
Before the final faceoff in Holtby’s end, Ovechkin stood behind Backstrom on the bench, hugging him. When the horn sounded, the Swede leaped over the boards, the Russian looked to the sky, and a human pile decades in the making grew at one end of the ice.
“It was like we were a bunch of little kids again,” Niskanen said.
What an innocent thought for such a hard-earned moment. Just a little more than 12 months earlier, the Capitals had dissected not just goals that hadn’t been reached but whether they could be reached at all.
On Thursday night in Las Vegas, when Ovechkin lifted the Stanley Cup and handed it to Backstrom, the pain felt like a necessary part of the journey.