The celebrations continued around them as Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, the two longest-tenured Washington Capitals, embraced. “One more,” Backstrom said to Ovechkin.
It’s been a journey to this point for the Capitals’ two star players. They’ve experienced the numerous disappointments and been reminded of them every spring. Those three seasons that ended with a Presidents’ Trophy, and an early-round playoff exit. Those six series eliminations at the hands of the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins. The high expectations that were never met.
But this year was different. This is not the best Capitals team of the Ovechkin/Backstrom era. Even with an eighth division title since 2007-08, there were plenty of other favorites ahead of them on the list of 2018 Stanley Cup favorites. Why? Well, for starters, we’d seen that movie before and we all knew the ending.
So when the Capitals fell behind 0-2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, it was surprising, but not too surprising. Same old Capitals, we all said. But then head coach Barry Trotz went back to his horse in Braden Holtby beginning with Game 3 and the turnaround began. Holtby would help the Capitals win 12 of his 17 starts, post a .935 even strength save percentage and two shutouts — with both coming in the final two games of the Eastern Conferenece Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was a second consecutive all-around effort for the Capitals after they lost control of the best-of-seven matchup with three straight losses following two wins at AMALIE Arena to begin the series.
“I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” said Ovechkin. “We understand what it has to take to be in the final. You can see the effort right now. This game was unbelievable. Everybody was all in, and we get the result.”
“It only took us 11 years, but now we’re there,” said Backstrom. “It’s a great feeling, especially the way we did it, too. The way we played the game, I thought it was outstanding from everybody. Right now, I’m just happy. I’m just going to enjoy this for a couple of days.”
[Full Schedule: 2018 Stanley Cup Final]
The journey continues Monday at T-Mobile Arena for Game 1 of the Final (8 p.m. ET, NBCSN) when the Capitals visit the Vegas Golden Knights, who employ Washington’s old general manager, George McPhee, and old defenseman, Nate Schmidt. The series will certainly not be short of storylines.
Ovechkin, who is probably still holding on to the Prince of Wales Trophy as you read this, called Game 7 “probably” the biggest game of his life and of the franchise’s. He delivered by scoring 62 seconds into the game, and after the final buzzer went off the emotions of the moment rendered him unable to finish thoughts during his post-game press conference.
Years of disappointment are being wiped away with each series victories. The Capitals exorcised the ghosts of the Pittsburgh Penguins that had haunted them for years and finally got over the hump of advancing to the conference final. Now, for the first time since 1998, they’ll be playing in a series with the Stanley Cup on the line.
“Every series is tough. We just played our game, stick to the system and we deserved to win,” Ovechkin told NBCSN after Game 7. “[There] were hard moments in all series, against Tampa, against [Pittsburgh], against Columbus. but we fight through it and we’re right now four wins away from [being] Stanley Cup champions.”
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.