PITTSBURGH — Hockey can be a funny, random game that can make no sense on any given night or throughout any given season. Results are sometimes prone to luck, or one shot, or one bounce, or one mistake, or one play perhaps more than any other major sport. That is just the nature of the game. Sometimes you’re great and you lose. Sometimes you’re just average and you win. That randomness can also make the game extraordinarily frustrating, and no great team — and they have been a great team — has been on the wrong side of that more often over the past decade than the Washington Capitals.
It has almost always happened in the same round (the second) and against the same team (the Pittsburgh Penguins) every year.
On Monday night in Pittsburgh, after years of torment and heartbreak, the Capitals finally — FINALLY — toppled both of those demons and kicked the wall down.
Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s goal at the 5:27 mark of overtime lifted the Capitals to a 2-1 win in Game 6, sending them into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 and the first time in the Alex Ovechkin/Barry Trotz era (or any coach that Ovechkin has had).
To say there was a sense of relief and elation in the Capitals’ locker room would be an understatement.
It’s not only Ovechkin and Trotz’s first trip to the Conference Final as a duo, it is also Trotz’s first trip in his 19th year as an NHL coach. Not being able to conquer that obstacle has been an obvious thorn in the side of an organization that has been one of the best in the league for more than a decade. Finishing with the best record in the league three times in 10 years is a major accomplishment. Alex Ovechkin is one of the greatest players the league has ever seen and has consistently performed in every situation for them. That, too, is worth something (a lot, actually). But because they haven’t had that one season where everything worked together in unison for them at the right time of year the results were always the same.
When great players and great teams consistently fall short, they can never shake that underachiever label, or choker label, or whatever label you want to throw on it, whether it is fair or not. And it is almost never fair.
“Oh absolutely,” said Trotz when asked if he ever felt some sort of a kinship with his players when it came to meeting the same result in the playoffs at the same point every year, and what it felt like to finally get over that hump.
“It’s so hard to move forward sometimes. It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns. He is a great player in this league. This league is a tough league, I think we’re only the team in the past few years to get to the second round [every year]. Even the Penguins didn’t, and they’ve won a couple of Cups. It’s a hard league to get there. I knew the frustration because you’re so close and you just can’t get it. You just have to stay with it. There is a kinship there, there is no question for that whole group. Backstrom. Ovi. Myself. Everybody.”
What makes all of this so surprising this season is that it is this Capitals team that has taken the next big step for the organization. That it is this Capitals team that might finally end up being the one.
There have probably been better Capitals teams than this one, both in terms of the roster on paper, and the results on the ice during an 82-game season. Any of the recent Presidents’ Trophy teams come to mind, and there were times this very season where it looked like the Capitals, on their way to a third consecutive division title, maybe just were not as good as their record.
But again, sometimes hockey is weird. And where better Capitals teams ran into a hot goalie, or didn’t have a little puck luck on their side, or didn’t have the depth around Ovechkin and Backstrom, this one seems to have all of that finally happening in their favor.
Braden Holtby has been a world-class goalie six years. He has won a Vezina Trophy, was a runner-up in another year, and entered these playoffs with the second best save percentage in NHL playoff history. But for as great as he has been there was always that one goalie, in that one series, that always just seemed to stand on his head a little bit more. Three years ago it was Henrik Lundqvist. Two years ago it was Matt Murray. Last year it was Marc-Andre Fleury when he, quite literally, stole the series from a Capitals team that probably carried the play through the seven game series.
This year it was Holtby that got the best of his counterpart, and it was a big difference in the series. Maybe the difference.
He did that after starting the playoffs on the bench in the first round. Since returning to the lineup he is 8-2 with a .926 save percentage. There were many playoff series in the past where he has posted better numbers and, somehow, still ended up on the wrong side of it.
In previous matchups with Pittsburgh, Sidney Crosby and Ovechkin would seemingly match each other goal-for-goal and point-for-point only to have the Penguins’ depth players end up being the difference.
This year it was the Capitals’ that had the depth scoring come through.
They managed to do all of that while overcoming a lot of the adversity that has typically sunk them in the past, whether it be the aforementioned goalie drama to open the playoffs, or injuries.
The Stanley Cup playoffs can sometimes be a battle of attrition where it is not just simply the best team that wins, but the healthiest team. The Capitals went into Game 6 on Monday night in Pittsburgh playing without half of their top-six. Tom Wilson was sitting out due to a suspension. Andre Burakovsky has not played since Game 2 of the first round. Then, the most damaging loss of them all came less than an hour before faceoff when it was announced that Nicklas Backstrom would not play due to an upper-body injury.
The stage seemed set for the Penguins to take advantage and send the series back to Washington for yet another Game 7 where anything could have happened.
Then the Capitals came out and completely shut the Penguins down, limiting a back-to-back champion that was facing elimination on home ice to just 22 shots on goal over 65 minutes of hockey.
“I don’t think anybody would have favored us being without him tonight, then with another two top-six forwards not playing,” said forward Lars Eller when asked about the absence of Backstrom.
“Having three top-six guys out, that just makes it so much better. It tells us how deep we are and what this group is all about. It’s great, it just tells how this group fought through this adversity because we faced some adversity without those guys.”
Without Backstrom (and Wilson, and Burakovsky), Eller said the Capitals didn’t really try to do anything different, but just had to make sure they had the right mindset and that everyone was prepared to step up and do a little more.
“You try to keep the same mentality, but just knowing obviously that you might play a few more minutes and stuff like that,” said Eller. “It takes a little bit more from everybody, and if you have the right people and the right mindset and attitude you can get it done, and we got it done. Guys stepped up. Our fourth line guys, [Nathan] Walker coming in, [Alex] Chiasson with a big goal, [Travis] Boyd came in after playing in I don’t know how long, they all did great in the hardest possible environment. Pittsburgh, Game 6, it doesn’t get much bigger and they handled themselves incredibly well. It was just great to be a part of.”
For years the the Joe Thornton–Patrick Marleau San Jose Sharks were the “so close, but couldn’t get it done” team in the NHL, and they carried that label for more than a decade through years of postseason exits. After everyone seemingly gave up on them ever breaking through and reaching the Stanley Cup Final, they finally did it two years ago. It may not have resulted in a win, but it was still a major accomplishment and huge step for an organization that had yet to take it. After years of premature first-and second-round exits there came a point where everyone wondered if the Penguins in the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin era would ever get another Stanley Cup. When it seemed that their window had slammed shut, they won two in a row.
This finally seemed to be the year where the Capitals reached that point where everyone outside of their organization and fan-base had given up on them after years of “this is the year” kept ending with the same result. Now here they are in the Eastern Conference Final after beating their long-time nemesis.
Given what this team has done in previous seasons, and given the way some of their top players have performed in both the regular season and playoffs, you can’t say they don’t deserve it.
Truth is, they probably deserved it long before this season. But that is not the way hockey works.
Sometimes you just never really know when all of the forces are going to align and work in your favor.
After years of “this is the year” proclamations coming up empty, this might actually be the one.
Especially after finally getting through second round and the Penguins the way they did it.