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 franchise that had gone its entire 44 years without a championship finally has something to celebrate.
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 he has a Conn Smythe Trophy to go along with it after being named the playoff MVP.
“I think this is just like a dream,” said Ovechkin, flanked by the two trophies in a post-game news conference. “It was a hard, long season. We fight through it and we worked so hard through all the years. We were together. It was whole, one team.”
Lars Eller scored the game-winning goal on a rebound that trickled through the legs of Vegas 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 teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov with 27 points.
“Ovie had a different step tonight,” teammate T.J. Oshie said. “He had it a lot in these players and you watch his shifts, watch how he changed the momentum in the game tonight, that’s your leader, that’s what you want him to do. A very well-deserved Conn Smythe — not only for his goals but for his leadership.”
After the game, fans stood and chanted “Go Knights Go!” It was an honourable send off for a team that ultimately fell short of its quest to do the impossible, but will still achieved something 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.
“I just wanted to do whatever I can to win the Cup — and we did it,” Ovechkin said. “It’s something I can’t explain. It’s unbelievable.”
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.
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 Marc-Andre 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 down to the ice, his skate made contact with the back of goalie Braden Holtby’s foot. Tomas Tatar’s shot deflect off Perron while he sat inside the net. 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.
“It didn’t matter what happened,” Ovechkin saiad. “Even after the third period, we knew we just had to push it and get the result. That’s it.”
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