LAS VEGAS — One dream is over. Another is finally realized.
The storybook season of the Vegas Golden Knights came to a somewhat abrupt end on Thursday night, as the Washington Capitals came-from-behind and won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history with a 4-3 victory in Game 5.
A city that had gone 44 years without a championship finally has something to celebrate. And the fans finally have a hero.
Alex Ovechkin can breathe easy. After years of heartbreak and frustration, the Washington captain has done it. He’s answered his critics, who said he lacked heart and the leadership skills to win it all.
Ovechin, who was a force in these playoffs, now has his Cup. And the playoff MVP has a Conn Smythe Trophy to go along with it.
“I just wanted to do whatever I can to win the Cup — and we did it,” said Ovechkin. “It’s something I can’t explain. It’s unbelievable.”
The first player Ovechkin passed the Cup to was longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom.
“Me and him have been together since Day 1 and we’ve been fighting through lots of negativity. I felt like I was going to give (the Cup) to him. It was a special moment.”
It was Lars Eller who scored the game-winning goal on a rebound that trickled through the legs of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury at 12:23 in the third period. But it was Ovechkin, who also scored in Game 5, leading the playoffs with 15 goals and finishing second to Evgeny Kuznetsov in overall scoring with 27 points.
Though the Golden Knights ultimately fell short in their quest to do the impossible, this was still a team that we will be talking about for years. No one expected Vegas to get this far. No one had even expected a playoff appearance.
But the Golden Knigths, who had lost just three times in the first three rounds of the playoffs, ran out of magic against a Capitals team that was too fast, too physical and seemed to be on a path of destiny after finally defeating the Penguins in the second round.
No one was going to stand in Washington’s pursuit of a Cup, not even Vegas, which gave its opponents everything it had in Game 5.
After a scoreless first period in Game 5, things got wild as both teams traded goals and lead changes in a second period where every shot seemed to find the back of the net.
Washington took a 1-0 lead and Vegas tied it up three minutes later. Thirty-four seconds after that, the Capitals scored again to go ahead 2-1. But the Golden Knights refused to go down with a fight. They tied the game two minutes later and then took a 3-2 lead with 28.2 seconds left in the period.
It was a dizzying display of offence and perhaps the best period of hockey so far in this final.
Jakub Vrana got things started at 6:24 on a breakaway goal for his third of the playoffs. The play started when Vegas defenceman Deryk Engelland missed the net with a shot and then got caught deep in Washington’s zone. With one defenceman back, the Capitals made two quick passes and Vrana up the ice alone, where he beat Fleury with a quick shot over his glove hand.
The Golden Knights answered back when Nate Schmidt shot a puck into traffic that redirected off Washington defenceman Matt Niskanen’s skate, But not even a minute had passed when Ovechkin put the Capitals ahead 2-1 on a one-timer from his office at the side of the net on a pass from Nicklas Backstrom.
The goals kept coming — and from unlikely sources.
David Perron, who had been a healthy scratch for Game 4, scored his first of the playoffs on a play where he was shoved into the net. On his way in, he appeared to sweep the legs out from goalie Braden Holtby and also had a shot from Tomas Tatar deflect in off him. Washington challenged the play, but it was ruled that Capitals defenceman Christian Djoos had initiated the contact with Perron.
The breaks kept coming for Vegas. Part of it was because a nervous Washington kept giving the puck away.
With Ovechkin serving a tripping penalty after Dmitry Orlov fumbled with the puck, Reilly Smith put Vegas ahead 3-2 on a power play goal. It was the first time since the first period of Game 2 that the Golden Knights were ahead.
And yet, on a night where every shot was destined for the back of the net, it didn’t hold up.
Down a goal with 10:08 remaining in the period, fourth-line forward Devante Smith-Pelly came up big again when he took a pass in front and slid around an outstretched Fleury. It was his seventh goal of the playoffs, tying his goal total from the entire regular season.
Less than three minutes later, a point shot from Brett Connolly found its way through Fleury’s pads and Eller swept the puck in the net. Just like that, the Capitals were back in the lead.
And this time, there was no way they were going to give it up.