Things don’t always go as planned. Nobody expected the Washington Capitals to win the Stanley Cup this year. Plenty of other teams seemed primed to run the table: Tampa, Nashville, Boston, Winnipeg, Pittsburgh. And then came Vegas, which looked like a team of destiny all the way through game 1 of the Cup final, which they won 6-4. But then the Caps took over and won the next four games, taking the Cup in five games.
Throughout the playoffs, there were moments in each round where the Capitals seemed on the verge of getting bounced. Down 2-0 in the first round vs. Columbus before winning four straight. In the second round against hated rivals Pittsburgh—who seemingly had beaten them every year of the last decade (not really) to prevent Washington from advancing to the conference finals—the Caps dropped the first game and went back and forth with the Pens before taking the series in six. In the third round against the stacked Lightning, Washington won the first two games and then dropped three straight before shutting out TB in the final two.
But in the final, there was a different vibe. Make no mistake, every game was tight, even game 4’s 6-2 Washington win, in which Vegas had plenty of chances to score early before the Caps pulled away. Led by captain Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals were able to answer every challenge from the Golden Knights with big goals, big hits and big saves from Braden Holtby, who just two months ago sat on the bench while Phillip Grubauer started the first two games in the Columbus series.
Leading playoff scorer Evgeny Kuznetzov was a force throughout the playoffs and that continued during the final. Fourth-liner Devante Smith-Pelly scored big goals in each of the last three games of the final. Lars Eller contributed with big goals, including the Cup winner in game 5. T.J. Oshie was a big presence, chipping in offensively and delivering a gutsy performance camping out in front of the Vegas net. Kuznetzov and Holtby would have been deserving winners of the Conn Smythe trophy as playoff MVP, but there was nobody complaining about Ovechkin getting the honor.
Vegas kept pushing, but the Caps were able to counteract just about every move. Marc-Andre Fleury, after dominating the first three rounds, looked merely human in the final. The Knights’ Cinderella story finally came to an end, but what a ride it was.
Meanwhile, it has been four days since Washington won and they’re still partying like there’s no tomorrow. Seems as though Ovechkin has not let the Cup out of his sight the entire time and they haven’t even held the parade yet. The explosion of joy and relief among long-suffering Caps fans, who saw a 44-year drought ended, is reminiscent of other Cup victories by teams who went a long time without winning: the ’94 Rangers, the 2010 Blackhawks, the 2011 Bruins. It’s also kind of nice to see a different team win; from 2009-2017, only four teams had hoisted the Cup (Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh).
While Ovi et al. continue their victory tour through the bars of DC, thoughts turn to the upcoming draft and free agency. And other teams dream of ending their Cup droughts. Certainly Maple Leaf fans are eager for that team to end its 51-year cold snap, one in which the team hasn’t even made the Cup final. But there’s also the St. Louis Blues, the last of the ’67 expansion class to not win a championship, with 50 years of futility. And the Buffalo Sabres and Vancouver Canucks, who both joined the NHL in 1970-71, have come close but now are up to 47 years without a Cup.
But if there’s one thing the Capitals’ victory and the Golden Knights’ incredible run tells us, it’s that anything is possible.