Twenty years after their only previous trip to the Stanley Cup final series, the Capitals are finally heading back. Washington blanked the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final series on Wednesday in Tampa, sending the Caps to the Cup final to face the nascent Vegas Golden Knights.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin scored 62 seconds after the opening puck drop, giving goaltender Braden Holtby the only offensive support he would require on the night. Holtby stopped all 29 shots he faced, blanking the league’s highest scoring regular season team for the second straight game.
Holtby held the Lightning without a goal over the final 159 minutes and 27 seconds of the series. Ryan Callahan scored what would prove to be the game-winning goal of Game 5 at the 33-second mark of the second period for the Lightning on Saturday, and it would also prove to be the last Lightning goal of the series.
Ovechkin and Holtby weren’t the only heroes for Washington on this night, though. Andre Burakovsky scored a pair of critical goals in the second period, breaking the game open and giving the Caps some much needed breathing room in the form of the first multi-goal lead in a Game 7 in Caps franchise history.
“I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” says Ovechkin. “We understand what it has to take to be in the final. You can see the effort right now. This game was unbelievable. Everybody was all in, and we get the result.”
Washington grabbed a 1-0 lead on the second shift of the game. After starting the game with the Nicklas Backstrom line, Caps coach Barry Trotz made a quick on-the-fly switch to the Evgeny Kuznetsov trio before the game was even half a minute old. And just after the one-minute mark, the Caps had an early advantage.
Tom Wilson made a hit on Chris Kunitz in the neutral zone, jarring the puck loose and launching the Lightning winger to the ice. Wilson carried into the Tampa Bay zone and left a pass for Kuznetsov, who promptly went cross-ice to Alex Ovechkin. From just above the left circle, Ovechkin fired a shot behind a late-arriving Andrei Vasilevskiy on the short side, staking the Caps to a 1-0 lead at 1:02 of the first.
Holtby and the Caps nursed that lead to the first intermission, keeping the buzzing Bolts from getting on the board in the first frame.
Tampa Bay came out strong once again in the second, and the Caps spent the first few minutes of the middle frame fending off the Bolts in the Washington zone. Just ahead of the midpoint of the middle period, Burakovsky gave the Caps some room with which to exhale.
The Washington winger breezed into Tampa Bay ice and shook the puck loose from Lightning defender Dan Girardi, then beat Vasilevskiy on the blocker side to double the Caps’ lead to 2-0 at 8:59 of the second.
Burakovsky made it 3-0 on a breakaway later in the second. A crafty indirect feed from John Carlson sprung Burakovsky into the Tampa Bay zone, and he threaded the puck through Vasilevskiy’s five-hole to give the Caps a three-goal lead with 3:29 left in the second.
Washington was all in from puck drop, and it lost a body here and there along the way. Devante Smith-Pelly laid out to block a Ryan McDonagh point shot early in the first, catching the shot with the back of his neck. Smith-Pelly has been a fearless shot blocker all season, and he was lost for most of the remainder of the night.
T.J. Oshie also laid out to block a shot minutes later, and he missed a shift as a result. Brooks Orpik was plastered into the glass on a hit from Lightning center Cedric Paquette in the second period, and the Caps played without Orpik for a while, too, though he did return to action in the third.
Nicklas Backstrom got credit for a late empty-net goal, accounting for the 4-0 final. It was somehow fitting that Ovechkin and Backstrom supplied bookend goals for the Caps on this night.
“It only took us 11 years, but now we’re there,” says Backstrom, of finally reaching the final. “It’s a great feeling, especially the way we did it, too. The way we played the game, I thought it was outstanding from everybody. Right now, I’m just happy. I’m just going to enjoy this for a couple of days.”
The way they played the game was impressive to the other side, too.
“You can’t expect to win at this time of the year when you can’t score,” says Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who did not register an even-strength point in the series. “You’ve got to give them some credit; that’s a very good team over there. Their goaltender played extremely well the last couple of games, and we kind of felt how they probably felt in a couple of those games where [Vasilevsky] stole a few.
“We had to find a way – our line included – to score at five-on-five this whole series, and the team that won the series probably had the more consistent play at five-on-five. They played well.”
Shutting down a potent offensive outfit like the Lightning requires a full team commitment, and the Caps got that up and down the roster on Wednesday. The Caps’ early lead kept the crowd out of the contest, and Washington’s stingy defense – coupled with some failed execution on the part of the Lightning – kept the locals quiet and subdued.
“They gave a pretty good defensive effort in Game 6,” says Lightning coach Jon Cooper of the Caps. “We had chances, but not great ones. I didn’t think that was the case tonight, though.
“If you were going to tell me after watching the two periods that we were going to be the team down 3-0, I would have said, ‘No way.’ But we were, and that was tough.
Just as they did to Columbus in the first round and to Pittsburgh in the second, the Caps played a stifling and frustrating game at five-on-five, and it ultimately paid off for them.
“We lost nine or 10 guys from our team last year, some very important people,” says Caps coach Barry Trotz, “some great leadership and all that. A lot of people doubted if we would be able to get it together again. A lot of people thought we would make the playoffs, and a lot of people thought we might not. We knew once we started going forward that we were going to have a chance to fool some people and get in, and we were going to be a difficult team to play.”
The vanquished Blue Jackets, Penguins and now the Lightning can confirm that.
" I just know from personal experience that to get this far you need breaks to go your way," says Cooper, "and I just felt we pressed and pressed and pressed and they got the breaks that they needed and we didn’t. And over a series, they probably earned those breaks, because they’ve got a hell of a team.
“Obviously, they gave us everything we could handle and more. I congratulate them. Trotzy did a really good job with their team.”