The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Who are these guys in the Capitals sweaters? Surely not those of so many playoff heartbreaks.

The Washington Capitals shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 on May 23 to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Andre Chung/The Washington Post)
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TAMPA — Take the available information on the Washington Capitals — the way they perform when they lead in a playoff series, how they execute in seventh and deciding games, all the synonyms for “choking” that exist — and toss it in the trash. Crumple it up. Send it to the shredder. It’s no longer relevant.

Washington’s sporting reality changed Wednesday night. All the ghosts that used to hide in the corners? Well, someone finally turned on the lights, scared them away, and look what was revealed: a Game 7 performance that was, essentially, the opposite of so many of its predecessors. The authors were these new Capitals who have revealed themselves, bit by bit, as a group that stiffens when others — so many others — shrank.

Washington Capitals are heading to Stanley Cup finals, extinguish Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7

That team is going to the Stanley Cup finals to play the Vegas Golden Knights because of that quality over all others. That team beat the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-0, in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night. That team delivered what is, without argument, the most significant victory in the history of a National Hockey League franchise that for so long has been a constant source of misery for folks who care and an easy mark to be mocked by those who don’t.

What just happened?

“Nothing’s easy,” owner Ted Leonsis said after he emerged from a locker room that was both jubilant and businesslike. “Nothing’s given to you. I’m really pleased with the demeanor that I saw in the locker room. While they’re happy, we want to win a Cup.”

But for now, soak in this night, because there hasn’t been one like it in 20 years. Soak in Alex Ovechkin, skating into the pile of white jerseys when the final horn sounded. All the agony and antacids from the past decade and more, they all seemed worth it in that moment.

“The emotion,” Ovechkin said. “It’s hard to explain how I feel.”

He spoke as the captain, the superstar. He could have been speaking for the entirety of the Capitals fan base, bruised over generations, buoyant on this night.

To reach the Stanley Cup finals, the Capitals received both the expected — a trademark goal from Ovechkin, a stellar performance from goaltender Braden Holtby, who closed the series with back-to-back shutouts — and the out-of-the-blue, a pair of goals from forward Andre Burakovsky, who was benched only two games earlier. That improbable combination is what it took to unburden themselves — and more importantly, their fans — of so much baggage accumulated over the years. That repeated blunt-force trauma required fans to ask difficult questions about their investment of emotions, of finances, of time: Why do I do this?

This is why. Wednesday night is why. An entire group of Capitals pushing the goal off its posts and hugging, jumping in unison — that’s why.

Capitals fans storm social media with outpouring of emotions (and champagne)

There is another step, for sure, because the Golden Knights await in the finals — the first time in the championship round for one of Washington’s four major pro teams since 1998. Then, the Capitals were swept away by the far superior Detroit Red Wings. That’s a high point?

Wednesday night, now that felt more like a franchise on its way to the apex. Consider how these Capitals handled themselves not only in winning the final two games of this series 7-0, but also what transpired Wednesday night alone. Ovechkin, the symbol both of Washington’s rise as an annual contender and its failures when the playoffs began, scored just 62 seconds after the puck dropped. The feelings that this night would be different began right there.

Or maybe they just continued. The truth is, this team hasn’t felt like the others, the groups that crumbled. That didn’t guarantee anything against a Tampa Bay team that was better in the regular season, that had earned the top seed in the Eastern Conference. But it did mean something about how the Capitals evaluated themselves.

“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, were better on paper, whatever. But this team, everyone knows their role, everyone can pitch in, everyone’s comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident in each other, don’t get down on each other. It’s a strong group. That’s extremely hard to come by.”

He’s talking about the Capitals, right?

There were other indications Wednesday would be a milestone. In the first period, Tampa Bay’s Anthony Cirelli whiffed on a puck that just sat in front of the net, begging to go in. Early in the second, Lightning forward Yanni Gourde did the same. Burakovsky’s confidence was so shot before the sixth game of this series that he said he needed to hire a sports psychologist. That’s the guy who takes advantage of an errant puck and created a 2-0 lead? And then added another?

For the Capitals, this is through-the-looking-glass material. And it happened when it mattered most. What world are we living in? Flip-flop the jerseys on the two teams, then take the bounces and breaks into consideration, and a true Capitals fan might have believed what happened Wednesday night — because it always happened to them. This? This might take clipping out the box score, framing it behind museum-quality glass and hanging it on the wall to believe that it transpired.

“Sometimes you have to deserve it,” Ovechkin said, “and sometimes luck have to be on your side.”

For once, both were true for the Capitals. They deserved it. And they got a bounce or two.

Because, when the disappointments rolled in like clockwork each May, we recounted those that went before them, it’s worth recalling them now — and then dismissing them outright. The Capitals’ Game 7s from recent history had provided some of the most significant gut punches the franchise can produce — a year ago against Pittsburgh, three straight times against the New York Rangers, Montreal and Pittsburgh again. They run together.

At some point, all of those results add up. They wear on fans. They become part of the fabric.

Until a group of guys comes along and takes out all the stitches, one by one.

Capitals fans unleash the joy: ‘I want to high-five everyone in here right now’

“These whole playoffs,” center Nicklas Backstrom said, “we’ve played with a different confidence than previous years.”

They’re also at a different point in their development than the only other Capitals team to reach the finals. Those Capitals of Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig and Dale Hunter had finished last the previous year and would miss the playoffs the next year. They reached the 1998 finals almost on a lark.

This group has been building to this point for more than a decade. Being lousy year after year brings no pressure. Winning eight division titles in 11 seasons, taking three Presidents’ Trophies as the league’s best regular-season team — that brings real expectations, not to mention the worst kind of disappointment when each season ends with a loss.

Wednesday night, though, they won. They won in a situation in which other Capitals teams have folded. They won in a way that demonstrated how different they have become. Thus, they have guaranteed themselves the chance to end their season with a victory, hoisting a Cup.

This is the Capitals we’re talking about, right? Watch the tape again to be certain. Sure seems like a different team.

Read more Capitals:

Game 7 swung on the unlikely stick of Andre Burakovsky

After Lightning takes a 3-2 series lead, the power simply goes out

It’s not just you: The Caps really do play an absurd number of Game 7s

Capitals’ grinders are at the center of extraordinary playoff moments

Was Caps’ win Monday the greatest in Capital One Arena history? It looked and sounded like it.

Why does Michael Wilbon think D.C. is a ‘minor league sports town’? How much time do you have?

Capitals’ Matt Niskanen is quick to take blame but deserves more of the credit