TAMPA, Fla. — Jon Cooper was talking about the game, but really he was talking about all of us, and how we grow up watching and playing hockey — whether in a rink, on the road or on a pond — and living for moments like this.
Game 7. Winner goes to the Stanley Cup final.
As the Tampa Bay Lightning head coach said: “You’re writing history.”
Well, Alex Ovechkin certainly did.
For the first 12 years of his Hall of Fame career, the Washington Capitals forward was known more for what he didn’t do in the playoffs than what he accomplished in the regular season. He had never advanced past the second round. He hadn’t won a head-to-head battle with Sidney Crosby. He had never hoisted the Stanley Cup.
He didn’t even get close.
After Wednesday night’s 4-0 win against the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, where he scored the game’s first goal 62 seconds after the puck dropped, he has a chance to correct that last part.
Yes, the Capitals are going to the Stanley Cup final, where they will play the Vegas Golden Knights. And it’s mostly because of Ovechkin.
“The emotions is we’re going to the Stanley cup final,” said Ovechkin, who grabbed the Prince of Wales Trophy after the game. “We’re very happy, but we’re not done yet. I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a very long time. We understand what is at stake to be in the final. This game was unbelievable. Everybody was all in and it’s a good result.”
Andre Burakovsky scored his first two goals of the playoffs and Braden Holtby stopped all 28 shots he faced for back-to-back shutouts, but the win belonged to Ovechkin. The series did, too.
With 12 goals and 22 points in 19 playoff games — including four goals and seven points in the conference final — only Evgeny Kuznetsov scored more. But it wasn’t the offence that stood out with Ovechkin’s game. Even when Ovechkin wasn’t scoring, he was influencing the game, whether it was a hit or a backcheck or a blocked shot.
Ovechkin, who had been criticized for his leadership, has led the Capitals this year.
In some ways, his run to the promised land is as unlikely as that of the Golden Knights. No one saw this coming when the playoffs began. Not with Washington starting its backup goalie for Games 1 and 2 and the Capitals relying on as many as five rookies. And yet, for whatever reason, this team has defied the odds and exceeded expectations.
They were survived a first-round scare against the Columbus Blue Jackets, finally exorcised their demons against Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round, and in the end were too much for the Lightning to handle.
They deserve to be in the final, where they will play a Golden Knights team that has gone 12-3 in the playoffs and defeated Washington in their two games the regular season.
“We have a good mix of players,” said Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. “I feel like everyone has been stepping up in the playoffs. We’re been waiting a long time for this.”
The Eastern Conference final had been a back-and-forth affair, with Washington winning the first two games, Tampa Bay winning the next three and Washington forcing Game 7.
Sensing the players might be feeling the pressure of a do-or-die game, Washington head coach Barry Trotz elicited more than a few laughs when Ovechkin asked him to perform the “hot lap” — a morning skate tradition of sprinting around the ice by yourself — on Wednesday. “It was a bit of a slow lap, but you’re all in,” said Trotz, “They call your number, you step up to the plate.”
Once the game started, it was Ovechkin who once again stepped up.
The period had just begun when Tom Wilson created a turnover with a hit on Chris Kunitz and then charged up the ice on an odd-man rush. The puck went to Kuznetsov, but the main target was Ovechkin, whose stick was already cocked and ready for a one-timer that he rocketed into the top corner.
The Capitals scored twice to make it 3-0 on goals from an unlikely source.
Burakovsky had missed most of the first two rounds with an injury and had sat out of Game 5 because of his lack of production. But midway through the second period, he used his speed to strip defenceman Dan Girardi of the puck and then beat Andrei Vasilevskiy with a quick snapshot underneath his blocker.
With 3:29 remaining in the period, Burakovsky took advantage of a bad line change and snuck a wrist shot through Vasilevskiy’s pads on a breakaway. Backstrom put the game out of reach late in the third period, but it was over well before then.
Tampa Bay, which had been shut out in Game 5, couldn’t buy a goal.
“You can’t expect to win at this time of year when you can’t score,” said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who had four goals and two assists in the series, but no even-strength points. “Give them credit — their goalie stole a few.”
If he and Ovechkin can steal four more, the Capitals will continue to rewrite their history.
‘TALL TASK’ IN FINAL
It doesn’t get any easier for the Washington Capitals.
The team now plays the Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup final, which begins on Monday. Aside from having home-ice advantage, Vegas comes into the series well-rested, having advanced past the conference final last Sunday.
“Real good team,” said defenceman John Carlson. “Real hard-working team. Obviously, their goalie’s (Marc-Andre Fleury) playing great and they work together. They work together really well.”
The Golden Knights beat the Capitals twice (3-0 in Vegas and 4-3 in Washington) during the regular season.
“They kind of attack you with five guys, kind of like the last three teams we’ve faced,” said Carlson. “It’s going to be a tall task, but I have confidence in faith in this group and what we’re capable of.”
Vegas, which went 12-3 in the playoffs, swept the L.A. Kings in the first round and needed six games to polish off the San Jose Sharks and five to take care of the Winnipeg Jets. Led by Fleury’s .947 save percentage, the team has lost just once in the past seven games.
When asked about facing Fleury, Carlson replied: “Holt’s (goalie Braden Holtby) been pretty good, too.”
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