The Washington Capitals celebrate moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals after a 2-1 overtime win behind Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at PPG Paints Arena on May 7, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
“Finally! We finally beat the Penguins.”
— Alex Ovechkin
His eyes rocked red by tears of joy, the greatest goal scorer of his generation seemed somewhat at a loss for words on the biggest hockey night of his life. Alex Ovechkin pondered whether fate deemed it necessary his Capitals go through the Penguins or possibly never go to the Eastern Conference final.
“Yeah,” Ovechkin said.
With that one word, Ovechkin said it all.
Yeah, it had to be the Penguins — they of the back-to-back Stanley Cup wins; they of three summers with Stanley in Pittsburgh since Ovechkin entered the NHL; they of ritualistic torturing of players, fans and anybody connected to Washington's hockey franchise — standing between the Capitals and that long sought next level. Had it been any other opponent the Capitals ousted, it would have been any other Monday night in the hockey world.
But it wasn't any other Monday night.
It was the Monday night when the Capitals left the Penguins — their players, their fans and anybody connected to Pittsburgh's hockey franchise — feeling raw. And when he slid a puck behind the Penguins' Matt Murray in overtime, Evgeny Kuznetsov did more than give the Capitals a 2-1 victory at PPG Paints Arena.
He gave them life.
All the Capitals had known before that goal was death at the hand of the Penguins. A couple of Game 7 losses at home (2009, 2017) sandwiched a Game 6 loss here (2016) had led most people to wonder if Ovechkin's Capitals were destined to die in an endless series of second-round playoff showdowns with Sidney Crosby's Penguins.
Given that history, it was fitting Ovechkin retrieved a puck turned over by Crosby to spring Kuznetsov for the goal that busted a lifetime of ghosts, the shot that sent the Penguins to summer vacation. No wonder that nearly 20 minutes after Kuznetsov's goal, the Capitals were still whooping it up inside the visiting dressing room Monday night.
From Ovechkin to coach Barry Trotz to owner Ted Leonsis, their celebration that was equal parts relief and euphoria needed overtime, too.
Will it be a one-time-only occurrence in what is already a history-making postseason for the Capitals?
“I really want to win a Cup,” Leonsis said, trying in vain to hold back a contented grin. “While this feels good, I want to win a Cup.”
Since he purchased the Capitals, Leonsis has often taken critical fire for sending the wrong types of messages. It should not go without mention that in this, the highest time of his tenure, the Capitals owner made a point to send the right one.
Leonsis also joined in the chorus of players, coaches and even team broadcasters praising the Penguins. The comments were not patronizing. The words were not rehearsed.
As hinted at by goalie Braden Holtby (easily the best player in the best-of-seven series won in six games by the Capitals), beating the Penguins afforded these Capitals their first true opportunity to really see the Penguins for something other than a hurtful master.
“They're a great team, one of the best that's played,” Holtby said. “Hats off to them.”
Added Brooks Orpik, a rugged defenseman who has seen the rivalry from both sides: “You see what they've done.”
But this time it was about what the Penguins didn't do.
Their stars weren't brighter. Their goalie wasn't better. Their resiliency wasn't greater.
The Capitals responded each and every time the Penguins landed a blow. They won Game 2 after giving away Game 1 in the third period. They took back the home-ice advantage in Game 3 and then held it in Game 5.
In Game 6, without three top forwards, and with a handful of new players in the lineup, the Capitals cut down Crosby and fellow all-time center Evgeni Malkin on their home ice.
This was not supposed to be the Capitals' year. Previous rosters were more impressive. Prior regular seasons had gone smoother.
They began this postseason with a different goalie between the pipes. They also opened it with a couple of losses at home. And, well, they once again had drawn the dreaded Penguins.
“I don't think we really had a doubt this year,” Holtby said. “I don't think any of us have been looking forward because nothing had been handed to us.”
Actually, opportunity was handed to these Capitals, and they, uh, capitalized.
Or did they?
“Yes and no,” Holtby said. “Obviously, everyone knows the difficulties we've had getting out of the second round. But that doesn't make us a Stanley Cup champ.
“The third round isn't the Cup.”
No, it's not.
But considering the NHL's first back-to-back champion in a couple of decades was again in their way, the Capitals should feel like they did something significant Monday night. They did.
“Finally,” Ovechkin said. “We beat the Penguins.”
That's not nothing. In fact, it's something that nobody had done in a long, long time.