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May 24, 2018
Ooh Las Vegas – A decade after they made their first abbreviated kick at playing for Lord Stanley’s Cup, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and their teammates made it to the final with a flourish on Wednesday night in Tampa. The Caps laid a 4-0 whitewashing on the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final series, advancing to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in 20 years.

Ovechkin scored what would prove to be the game-winner just 62 seconds after the opening puck drop, Braden Holtby made 29 saves to record his second straight shutout, Andre Burakovsky contributed a pair of key insurance markers in the second, and Backstrom put the coda on a memorable night with a late empty-netter. 

Few folks picked the Caps to win this series, but after a decade of high expectations failed to produce a Cup finalist in the District, this 2017-18 Capitals outfit is poised to make some noise in the desert. 

“I think everybody’s happy, but we’re not finished, not done yet,” says Ovechkin. 

The Caps jumped out to a 2-0 series lead in winning the first two games on the road in Tampa. But a three-game losing streak imperiled Washington’s run, until Holtby intervened and took all the charge out of the Lightning’s vaunted attack with a run of 159 minutes and 27 seconds of consecutive shutout hockey to close out the series. 

Having vanquished Columbus, Pittsburgh and now Tampa Bay, the Caps move on to face the Vegas Golden Knights – a first-year expansion team – in a final series no one within the solar system could have predicted back in October when the season got underway.

“It’s always been a good feeling on the team,” says Backstrom. “And I feel like this year we played confident every game in the playoffs. We have been pretty loose I think, in between [games], even if we lost. And before this Game 7 I thought we were really focused, we were really determined and that’s what you need in Game 7.” 

Sitting behind a podium alongside Holtby after Game 7, Ovechkin reflected a bit.

“Me and [Backstrom], since my third year we’ve been together. Since the first playoffs, I think me and him and [Jay Beagle] have been through all the battles, all of the playoffs, all the losses. It’s just emotion, you know? 

“Finally, we get what we want – to be in the Stanley Cup final – but how I said, there is still lots of hockey, still lots of energy and still lots of battles over there so … and just ask [Holtby]. I’m kind of emotional and it’s hard to explain how I feel.” 

“You’re doing great, babe,” Holtby interjected.

They all are, and that’s why they’re headed to Vegas.

All Of This And Nothing – Holtby spun a second straight shutout on Wednesday, and he extended his streak of shutout netminding to 159 minutes and 27 seconds with a 29-save performance against the Lightning.

Holtby joins Olie Kolzig – who was in the building at Amalie Arena on Wednesday night – as the second goalie in franchise history with consecutive shutouts in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Kolzig blanked the Ottawa Senators in Games 4 and 5 of the Caps’ second-round series in the 1998 playoffs.  

With six career playoff shutouts, Holtby has matched Kolzig’s franchise mark. 

Holtby is the 27 thNHL goaltender to record a shutout in a Game 7, and the fifth to do so to clinch a berth in the Stanley Cup final. Along with Hockey Hall of Famers Harry Lumley in 1950 and Dominik Hasek in 2002, Holtby is just the third goaltender ever to propel his team to the Cup final with shutouts in both Games 6 and 7. 

Lifetime in Game 7, Holtby is now 3-4 with a 1.81 GAA and a .934 save pct. Lifetime in elimination games, Holtby is now 8-5 with a 1.73 GAA and a .937 save pct. 

Driving 65 – Heading into Wednesday’s decisive Game 7, Burakovsky was the only Caps forward with more than two games played in the playoffs who had yet to record a point in the postseason. But there was a good reason for that; he had played in only seven games and had barely played in some of those. 

Injured early in the second game of the postseason way back on April 15, Burakovsky missed the remainder of the first round and all of the second. When he drew back into the lineup at the start of the conference final against Tampa Bay, he was jumping in with and against players who had been playing high level and high leverage playoff hockey for several weeks while he was in more of a training camp mode. 

After scuffling through a few games, Burakovsky was scratched for Game 5, and he was limited to just 7:31 in total ice time for Game 6. His game-breaking ability came to the fore in Game 7, as he exerted some offensive-zone pressure in scoring a pair of pretty second-period goals to suck a lot of the remaining life out of the Lightning. 

“It meant a lot for the team,” says Burakovsky. “I’ve been out for a while here with the injury and came back. It hasn’t been easy for me; it’s been pretty hard. When I was out, I was working really hard to get back in as fast as possible, but it’s harder than I thought to just jump into the semifinal against a team like Tampa. It’s not going to come easy, so it definitely feels really good to help the team get a win and be a part of this team.”

Burakovsky joins Dale Hunter (1988) as just the second Caps player ever to score two goals in a Game 7. Burakovsky now has three career two-goal games in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

Seven Come Eleven – Playing in their 11 thGame 7 in the last 11 years – the most by an NHL team during that span – the Caps won a Game 7 for just the fifth time in 16 tries (5-11) and the second time on the road (2-3). Wednesday’ win over the Lightning marks just the second time in Washington’s franchise history that it has scored more than two goals in a Game 7, and it marked the first time ever that the Caps were able to forge a multi-goal lead in a Game 7.

Road Killers – Washington heads to the Cup final having clinched each of its first three series on the road. The Caps closed out both the Blue Jackets and the Penguins on the road and in doing the same to the Lightning, have now finished each of their last five playoff series wins on the road. 

The last time the Caps won a playoff series on home ice was in 2015, when they closed out the New York Islanders in Game 7 of a first-round series at Capital One Arena. 

Wednesday’s win lifts the Caps to an 8-2 road record in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs, establishing a franchise record for most road wins in a single playoff year. Washington is only two road wins shy of matching the NHL record for most road wins in a single playoff season. Four teams have won as many as 10 road games in the playoffs, with the 2014 Los Angeles Kings being the most recent. 

Top Trio – Ovechkin’s first-period goal was his 12 thof the playoffs, a single-season playoff high. He scored 11 goals in the 2009 playoffs and is now two goals shy of matching John Druce’s franchise record of goals in a single playoff year (14).

With an assist on Ovechkin’s goal. Kuznetsov extended his scoring streak to 10 games (six goals, nine assists), a Capitals franchise record. Additionally, Kuznetsov’s total of 24 points (11 goals, 13 assists) in the playoffs extends his franchise mark for most points in a playoff season.

Tom Wilson also assisted on Ovechkin’s goal, giving him 11 points (three goals, eight assists) in the playoffs, all at even strength. Wilson is tied for 10 thin the NHL in even-strength scoring in the playoffs.

With his first-period beatdown of Bolts blueliner Braydon Coburn, Wilson was just a goal away from achieving the rarity of a Gordie Howe hat trick in a Game 7.

Shutdown Street – During the 2017-18 regular season, the Lightning averaged 3.54 goals per game to lead the NHL by a relatively wide margin. The distance between the Lightning and second-place Winnipeg (3.33) was greater than the distance of any of the 31 teams on that ledger. The Bolts also led the league with 196 five-on-five goals.

The Capitals concluded the ’17-18 regular season with an average of 2.90 goals against per game, 16 thin the NHL and third worst among all playoff teams, ahead of only New Jersey (2.93) and Pittsburgh (3.02).  

But Washington’s team defense battened down the hatches against the Bolts, limiting the Lightning to just eight five-on-five goals in seven games in the series.  

During the regular season, the Lightning featured five players with more than 60 points: Nikita Kucherov (100), Steven Stamkos (86), Brayden Point (66), Yanni Gourde (64) and Victor Hedman (63). That group combined for three goals and six points at five-on-five in the Eastern Conference final.

By The Numbers – John Carlson led the Caps with 25:06 in ice time and five blocked shots … Lars Eller led the way with five shots on net … Ovechkin led the Caps with five hits … With an assist on Burakovsky’s second goal, Carlson moves into a tie for the lead in scoring among defensemen in the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs. Carlson has 16 points (three goals, 13 assists), pulling him even with Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien.