Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals shakes hands with Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins after a 4-2 Washington series win in 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)
PITTSBURGH — It was one play in one moment as 10 p.m. approached on a Monday night in May, but when the puck landed on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s stick and he took a powerful stride to the goal, decades rode with him. Tell us the teams in our town aren’t intertwined with their fates. Point out that one version of the Washington Capitals has nothing to do with those that came before it.
“I never focus on the history,” Kuznetsov said.
And yet there it was, on his stick blade. So much history. For the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, a nemesis if there ever was one. For the man who found Kuznetsov open in the middle of the ice, Alex Ovechkin. For Washington as a sports town, questioning belief and commitment and whether hope was sustainable — or even worth it.
Pretend those elements weren’t intertwined at that moment. If they hadn’t been, maybe Ovechkin’s thoughts — which he relayed on a live NBC Sports Network interview almost immediately afterward — would have been something other than this: “Please score. Please @$#%&! score.”
Kuznetsov @$#%&! scored. The Capitals @$#%&! won. The Penguins were @$#%&! vanquished.
Let’s acknowledge, to the rest of the country, that the Capitals’ 2-1 victory Monday night at PPG Paints Arena won them no banner or trophy. It was a hard-earned, overtime victory in the sixth game of their second-round playoff series. In some cities — this one included — winning a second-round series might seem like a necessary step, not a milestone.
For Washington, though? The ignominious stats just grew year after year, to the point in which the Nationals were asked about the Capitals, and the Capitals were asked about the Wizards, and the Redskins were — well, gee whiz. For two decades, since the Capitals made their only appearance in the Stanley Cup finals, no D.C. team in the four major professional North American sports stayed alive until just four teams remained. We had to think: Were they tied together in misery?
Maybe that’s a lame storyline. But it existed. It breathed and slept and woke and walked and lived among us. Ovechkin first appeared in a Capitals sweater — one of those blue-and-black-and-gold relics — back in the fall of 2005. Never had the greatest goal-scorer of his generation made it past the second round.
“It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn,” said Capitals Coach Barry Trotz, who shared that same distinction. “I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns.”
Now, finally, he can throw it back.
“Alex’s place in history is pretty set,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said in the locker room afterward. In a way, that’s true, because you can’t take away from his three Hart Trophies as the NHL’s MVP, and you can’t take away his seven times leading the league in goals, and you can’t take away the 607 regular season goals — or the fact that he essentially reshaped hockey in Washington.
But what evaporated Monday night was the big “but” people always brought with Ovechkin. Now, there will still be people who say — if this run ends in the Eastern Conference finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning — that Ovechkin was good but not great, that he still hasn’t won a Stanley Cup.
Fine. But when he looked up ice in overtime and saw Kuznetsov, he had the opportunity to beat the Penguins, to say, for the first time in four second-round chances, that he got past Sidney Crosby. It might not mean much to people in other cities. It means a heck of a lot to people in Washington.
“He threw the big pass — not the shot — to win it,” Leonsis said. “I thought that was a moment that says where he’s arrived as a player. I think he’s a player and a captain who just wants to win.”
How to process all this?
“I’m probably going to have a cold one,” Trotz said. “Or two.”
Seems appropriate. Remember when Ovechkin’s Capitals first entered the Stanley Cup playoffs, back in 2008, when Bruce Boudreau led a hair-on-fire group to a blitz that resulted in a Southeast Division crown? That was so long ago, the division doesn’t even exist anymore.
The only leftovers from that group are Ovechkin and his longtime running mate, center Nicklas Backstrom — and we’ll get to him. But the kids who made up that team — Ovi and Mike Green and Alex Semin and Brooks Laich — they wouldn’t recognize the brand of hockey this team needed to play to break through Monday night.
There was, over all this time and all these teams, a transformation. These Capitals have been saddened by all the failings in the past, but they have also been hardened by them.
“They probably needed to go through some of this,” Trotz said. “What I see is: There’s growth.”
And so, when the Capitals showed up Monday, and it was apparent that Backstrom — a key to just about everything they do — wouldn’t be able to go because of what appears to be a hand injury, they didn’t buckle. They bucked up. Their lineup included Nathan Walker, an Australian rookie who had never appeared in a playoff game and was discarded midway through the season, only to be brought back. It included Travis Boyd, who trails Backstrom in career regular season production by 798 points: 799-1. And yet he centered the third line.
There was no Tom Wilson, serving the last of his three-game suspension. There was no Andre Burakovsky, who never appeared in the series because of an injury.
But there was also a lack of something else, something that has followed this franchise for so long. There was no doubt.
“The great thing about this all day,” Trotz said, “is I knew we were going to win.”
It’s an odd thing to say, but there’s some reason there, too. With such a thin lineup, some of the tried and tired themes about what the Capitals do in these situations — that they choke, that they gag, that they find ways to lose — were kind of eliminated. The puck hadn’t yet dropped, and the favorite in this one 60-minute game was clearly established. It was Pittsburgh. The Capitals could only hope to win one in a way they never could have a decade or, maybe, even a year ago. They had to put the mortar to the pestle and grind.
And so when they forced overtime, it was the crowd at PPG Paints Arena that was on edge. Not the Caps.
Which brings us back to the history that rushed up from behind and informed the entire night. As Ovechkin said afterward, “Nobody expect we going to be in this position before this season,” and he’s right. The Capitals’ time was last year, when they posted the best record in the league for the second straight season, when they went all-in at the trade deadline to win a Cup.
When they didn’t, they had to assess why. So it’s worth listening to Brian MacLellan, the general manager, in a frank assessment in the days before the season even began.
“We got to get to that point, when you feel that point of pressure from the whole history of it, the building, everything — that you overcome it,” MacLellan said. “Somebody steps up.”
So there was Ovechkin in overtime, looking up ice. There was the pass to Kuznetsov, and the rush in on the net. There was Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray. And there was the shot.
You can say it was one play in one hockey game on one night in May. But for this town and this team, decades of drama and disappointment were wrapped up right there. Kuznetsov buried them all.