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Sweet Sixteen - Caps Cop Cup

June 8, 2018
Usually, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But not this time.  

On Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena in Sin City, the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup, doing so for the first time in franchise history. And that Cup is not staying in Vegas, it’s coming home to the District for a Tuesday celebration with many thousands of fans that have been waiting decades for this day. 

The Caps finished off the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the Stanley Cup Final, winning the last four straight, and coming from behind to win a thriller of a Game 5 – and the elusive Cup – on Thursday night in Vegas.

Lars Eller scored the game-winning goal with 7:37 left in the third period, because of course he did. Eller’s double-overtime goal in Game 3 of the Capitals’ first-round series with Columbus prevented the Caps from tumbling into an 0-3 canyon in that series. Eller supplied the game-winning goals in the first and last of Washington’s 16 victories during this wild, two-month ride, and he had a game-winner in the Eastern Conference Final against the Lightning, too. 

Washington entered the third period of Thursday’s game looking up at a 3-2 deficit, but not to worry, kids. 

Devante Smith-Pelly and Brooks Orpik combined to manufacture the tying tally with a terrific forechecking goal – the former shaking the puck loose behind the Vegas net and finishing with a flourish after the latter expertly kept the puck in at the point and put it back down low. The goal was Smith-Pelly’s seventh of the postseason. Most of them have been big, but none bigger than this one, the goal that made it a 3-3 game at 9:52 of the third.

Smith-Pelly’s goal set the table for Eller’s heroics about two and a half minutes later. From behind the Vegas net, Andre Burakovsky made a centering feed for Brett Connolly in the high slot. Connolly fired, and Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury – who came out above the paint to cut down Connolly’s angle – made the stop, but not securely. Eller was behind Fleury; he promptly spotted and potted he loose puck into the vacated cage to put the Caps up 4-3, their third one-goal lead of the night, and the one that wasn’t getting away.

It wasn’t a pretty goal, but to a city and a region that has waited nearly half a century for this night, it was as gorgeous as they come. 

Braden Holtby made half a dozen or so more stops, helping the Caps navigate the clock down to zero and seal the deal for all time.

The Caps won the Cup in the desert, yes, but this was no mirage.

While the first period was relatively quiet and without any goals, the second period featured five lamplighters, a flurry of lead changes and frequent kerfuffles. For the first time in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Knights did not score the first goal in a home game in Game 5. Washington’s Jakub Vrana had that honor, taking a perfect pass from Tom Wilson and motoring into Vegas ice with a step on his nearest pursuer. From the left dot, Vrana sailed a shot to the far corner, past Fleury’s outstretched glove hand to put the Caps up 1-0 at 6:24.

Just over three minutes later, Vegas answered, getting some of that puck luck it had been lacking the previous few games. Golden Knights defenseman Nate Schmidt tried to make a pass to Jonathan Marchessault in the slot, and the puck instead clanked off the skate of Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen and went behind Holtby to tie the game at 1-1 at 9:40 of the middle stanza.

Mere seconds after that goal, Vegas defender Brayden McNabb was boxed for tripping T.J. Oshie, and Washington quickly regained the lead on the ensuing power play.

Nicklas Backstrom made a perfect thread-the-needle pass to Alex Ovechkin, who vacated his left dot office and went lower – just above the goal line – to bury a back door, short-side shot behind Fleury, restoring the Washington lead at 2-1 just 34 seconds after Schmidt’s goal. 

But Vegas showed some resilience in getting the next two goals.

David Perron made it a 2-2 game with his first goal of the playoffs at 12:56 of the second, a goal on which Washington issued an unsuccessful challenge for goaltender interference.

Late in the frame, Ovechkin took a necessary tripping minor, hauling down Vegas’ William Karlsson to prevent a scoring chance after a Caps turnover. But the Knights cashed in on the resulting power play, taking the lead for the first time since the first period of Game 2 on Reilly Smith’s goal. Smith scored off a sublime feed from Alex Tuch with less than 30 seconds remaining in the middle period. 

At that point, Washington had 20 minutes with which to work as it sought to avoid a potential Game 6 back in D.C. on Sunday. The Caps, as you may have heard by now, got it done. 

Many Caps faithful made the trek to Vegas and were on hand to celebrate the historic achievement, watching with a mixture of relief, reverence and exhilaration as Ovechkin accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy – awarded to the playoff MVP – from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. Many more were on hand a couple of thousand miles to the east, watching and eventually erupting at Capital One Arena, and the streets of the District were awash with joyous and teary red-clad and red-eyed revelers.

Washington’s best players were at their best consistently throughout the postseason, and every other player on the roster made a notable contribution along the way at some point during an eight-month journey that spanned 106 games. The Caps vanquished four 100-point teams with excellent goaltenders, top scoring threats and respected coaches, going 16-8 against some of the best teams in the circuit.

The 2017-18 Washington Capitals are a special bunch. They’re the ones who got it done when previous editions fell short, and it took every damn one of them to do it. Everyone on the roster had a hand in this glorious achievement, and the team’s coaching staff was at the very top of its collective game when it mattered most. 

Washington tied a league record by earning 10 of its 16 wins on the road, and it joins the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins as just the second Cup champion ever to clinch all four of its series victories on the road.  

There is an old and lesser known Allman Brothers song called “Brothers Of The Road” that contains the following couplet:

“Been through hell and back again/If we don’t lose, we’re bound to win.”

They have been, they didn’t, and they did. They truly are brothers of the road, all of them.

Enjoy it, all of you. And be sure to pour one out for those who weren’t here for this day, but who would have enjoyed it as much as the rest of us. As we all know all too well, these opportunities don’t come around every year. 

The Cup is leaving Las Vegas. It’s headed home, to Washington.