That’s where the Stanley Cup finals start Monday night against the Golden Knights. To the winner goes possession of a huge silver receptacle, perfect for holding champagne, which, for the first time, could be in the hands of the unjinxed, freed-from-history, loose-and-dealing Capitals.
The Capitals didn’t just get to the threshold of their idea of paradise with a victory over the Lightning here in Amalie Arena. To make it sweeter, to make it worth all the wait, the Caps did it with swagger and crushing checks, with creative and uninhibited plays, with pressure-proof self-discipline and every quality of deep-season playoff character that this franchise, and several of its biggest stars, were not supposed to possess.
“We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We’re very happy, but we still have some unfinished business.”
The Caps’ performance, especially in their past two games in which they outscored the high-powered Lightning 7-0, even mystified some of the Caps’ stars.
“Other years, we were better on paper,” said Ovechkin’s longtime running mate Nicklas Backstrom. “But this is the best I have ever seen us play. I wish I could explain it. I can’t.”
After a huge Caps group hug around goalie Braden Holtby, the man who hadn’t had a shutout all season — and now has two in a row — Ovechkin and Backstrom put their heads together for a while. It was just a moment for them.
“Nicky has been through all the bad, all the loses. Finally, we get what we want,” Ovechkin said. “Still a lot of battles ahead.”
Then he both choked up and yet smiled sheepishly, too. “I’m a man of emotion. It’s hard for me to explain what I feel.”
Luckily, it wasn’t hard to see those emotions transformed into dazzling acts.
If you like your Game 7s of the Eastern Conference finals to start with a goal by Ovechkin in the first 62 seconds (on the Capitals’ first shot of the game, no less), then feature 16 straight overhand punches from Tom Wilson, joyously bloodying his own knuckles to smash the head of the Lightning’s Braydon Coburn, then you were in heaven Wednesday night.
Since, by then, your hair was already standing on end, and your arms were on fire anyway, you might as well go whole hog and fling up a lung screaming about Andre Burakovsky, benched for one game and scoreless in the playoffs, stabbing two breakaway goals past Andrei Vasilevskiy. The Lightning goalie may have three “I’s” in his name, but Burakovsky had him blindfolded all night.
One play exemplified the dash and daring of this redefining victory. Defenseman John Carlson made a no-look, backhanded, head-man pass off the side boards to the flying Burakovsky for a clean breakaway goal for a 3-0 lead with 3:29 left in the second period.
In the past, especially in two brutal loses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second-round of the playoffs the past two seasons when the Caps had won the Presidents’ Trophy, Coach Barry Trotz was concerned that his team, in big games, tended to cautious, not aggressive and creative as is their natural wont. Carlson’s pass, and Burakovsky’s anticipation of it, epitomized the best of the Capitals — what they so often have been in regular season through the Ovechkin era and what they can now truly say they are in the playoffs, too.
“People doubted if we could get it together again,” Trotz said of the Capitals’ Game 7 loss at home in the second round to a decimated Pittsburgh team last season. “They thought, ‘Maybe make the playoffs, maybe not. Won’t go far.’
“The guys in that room don’t want to be defined by what has happened to them in the past. They wanted this game.”
A big Caps contingent here, embedded within the Lightning crowd, erupted, just as they did all night on every goal and shuddering check. And the Lightning fans? They booed their team off the ice as the second period ended. Not loudly, but firm. The heavier heckling of the heavy favorite — given a 63 percent chance to win this series before it began — was saved for later as hope expired.
Caps fans can understand how that feels and, for once, be on the other end of the pain. To understand the satisfaction, with a side order of delight and maybe a dash of ecstasy that this game brought to the most devoted, long-suffering Caps fans, perhaps you have to digest all the previous chapters in this team’s ignoble Game 7 history.
This night was nothing like that. Late on Monday night, after his team had staved off elimination with a 3-0 win in Game 6, Trotz said this “special group” had learned how to reverse its playoff curse. “We’ve learned that these are special moments,” he said. “You get a chance to live in those moments and not be afraid of them.”
Seldom has a team, especially one trying to shuck a generational cloak of failure and, at times, mortification, managed to set such a dramatic tone, packed with both superstar power and an ancient hockey punch. Ovechkin’s slap shot simply froze Vasilevskiy for that vital Ovi Instant when the goalie has no idea where the king of slap shots’ puck will swerve. Try this: past your right ear.
Last summer, Trotz went to Russia and, while there, met with Ovechkin. “After last year, a lot of people doubted that he had what it took,” Trotz said. “He took it personally. He told me, ‘I’m going to show you I’m still a great player.’ In these playoffs, he now has 12 goals and 10 assists in 19 games.
And with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals awaiting, he now gets to show it on the sport’s biggest stage.
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