When it was all said and done—after a decade of playoff disappointments, two consecutive series defeats to Pittsburgh, six hotly contested games against the Pens in this year’s second round, and 65 minutes of the most butt-clenching, nerve-jangling playoff hockey imaginable on Monday night—Alexander Ovechkin could finally exhale.
It looked like this:
The puck that Evgeny Kuznetsov slid through Matt Murray’s legs in overtime of Game 6 brought the sudden death of multiple demons. Ovechkin, for the first time in his career, beat Sidney Crosby in a playoff series. Washington, for the first time since 1994, defeated Pittsburgh in the postseason. Ovi and head coach Barry Trotz, for the first time, are headed to the conference finals. Cynical narratives about the intestinal fortitude of the Rock the Red Caps were laid to rest. Never has a second-round victory felt so climactic. And thus—for Ovechkin, Trotz, the Capitals, and a tortured fan base—immense joy, and immense relief. “Just fucking please score,” is what Ovi said was running through his mind as he watched Kuznetsov break in alone with a chance to kill their nemesis:
Evgeny Kuznetsov ends 20 years of misery, sends Capitals to Eastern Conference Final pic.twitter.com/KhAH7Yeele— Ian Oland (@ianoland) May 8, 2018
And … exhale.
The first five games of the series had been your typical Caps-Pens fare: hockey plus hate (and history) equals peak entertainment. Story lines, and attendant controversies, were plentiful: a crucially disallowed score (Patric Hornqvist’s “parallax” no-goal in Game 2); a suspension to a key player (Tom Wilson’s three-game punishment for breaking Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw); further questionable hits in the dying embers of close games (T.J. Oshie on Kris Letang in Game 4; Jake Guentzel on John Carlson in Game 5); and lobbying by both coaches to the league to take disciplinary action.
Through it all, Ovi (three goals, four assists) and Sid (three goals, five assists) played to a near draw. “Your top guys a lot of times cancel themselves out,” Trotz said after the game. Accordingly, as in years past, the difference was not between the stars, but between the supporting casts. In last season’s Pittsburgh victory, it was depth guys like Bryan Rust, Justin Schultz, and Nick Bonino and Matt Cullen (both now ex-Pens) who rose to the occasion. This year, the Caps got much-needed production from Brett Connolly and rookies Jakub Vrana and Chandler Stephenson. Even without the suspended Wilson and injured second-line center Nicklas Backstrom on the road in Game 6, Washington’s forward core outperformed Pittsburgh’s. Glory in the NHL playoffs is won on the backs of unsung heroes—and, of course, superior goaltending, which the Capitals got from Braden Holtby.
And yet, it’s the NHL playoffs. Victory and defeat are separated by the slimmest of margins, especially between these two teams. Minus empty-netters, the final series goal tally was 16-13, Capitals. Every contest was in doubt until the waning moments of the third period. Game 6, the first elimination game, was the tightest of them all. For a welcome change, there was to be no controversy: no dubious penalty calls, no coach’s challenges, and no reckless play. There would also be no scoring, until each side traded second-period goals en route to a tense, scoreless third. Then, extra time. Moments before Kuznestov’s series winner, Tom Kuhnhackl pinged iron behind Holtby—we were millimeters away from an anxiety-ridden Game 7 in Washington on Wednesday. “When they hit the post,” said Trotz later, “I was going, ‘We got this.’”
Excuse us Caps faithful if we didn’t share our coach’s optimism. But then Kuznetsov dispossessed Crosby, and Ovechkin nodded the puck ahead to him, and Kuzy five-holed Murray. Exhale. And cue Crosby, for the first time in his career after a Caps series, struggling to articulate why it went wrong: “Everyone did what they could,” he said. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get it done.”
For the Capitals, beating the Penguins is only one step, however large, toward a championship. A loaded Tampa Bay team, with home-ice advantage, awaits in the next round. “The third round isn’t the Stanley Cup,” said Holtby. “We’re only halfway. We haven’t done anything yet,” said Trotz. They haven’t, and yet they have: The Caps have finally instilled belief that a Stanley Cup berth is within reach in the Ovechkin era.