LAS VEGAS – For so many years, the Washington Capitals were supposed to win the Stanley Cup, but 2018 was not one of them. But there they stood, the last team standing in professional sports’ most grueling battle of attrition with 34.5 pounds of beautiful nickel and silver alloy above their heads. Coach Barry Trotz joked that defenseman Christian Djoos is so slight that the team had concerns that he wouldn’t be able to lift it.
Trying to make sense of the 2018 Stanley Cup playoffs is an exercise in futility. In training camp this season, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin promised that they, “wouldn’t suck this year,” which is hardly a ringing endorsement. But something happened to this team. It went from being focused on results to actually caring about the process that led to them. And the ultimate irony is that once they started doing that, they achieved the results they had been chasing for so long.
“I just think our guys got pissed off,” Trotz said. “Enough is enough. They dusted themselves off and they said, ‘You know what? We don’t care what anybody thinks or what everybody says – and there were some nasty and ugly things said to some pretty exceptional people in our room – and we took it heart. We said, ‘You know what, we’re going to dust ourselves off and stick it up everybody’s rear end.’ And we did.”
This was a team that always had talent and potential. It was a team that was always among the pre-season favorites and it delivered in the regular season, winning back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies. But it turned out that when the playoffs hit, the Capitals had things backwards. “Everything was a failure,” Trotz said. “We were one of the few teams that had gotten to the second round four years in a row and it was a failure. I don’t know if we recognized that there were steps to success and we should honor those steps so you get to this moment.”
One of those steps was, without question, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in a playoff series. That was an obstacle the Capitals could not overcome, but once they did, there was going to be no stopping them. The reality, though, is the Capitals were the best team on the planet from Game 3 of the first round to the end of the playoffs. Since the NHL went to a three-round playoff after expanding in 1967, until this year there had been only one team in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup after trailing at some point in each round. That was the 1991 Penguins, who are now joined by the 2018 Capitals. After losing Game 1, the Capitals outplayed Pittsburgh and proved they could defeat their nemesis despite playing shorthanded.
“I think it was huge,” said Capitals GM Brian MacLellan. “That was where it seemed to stall for us. To do it when we had guys out, guys suspended (Tom Wilson for three games), guys hurt (Nicklas Backstrom missed Game 6), to come through and beat Pittsburgh, I think it took a lot of the steam, the pressure, off our group.”
There are those who believe the Stanley Cup final turned on two crucial plays – Braden Holtby’s spectacular save with less than two minutes to go in Game 2, coupled with James Neal hitting the post on a wide open net that would have given the Vegas Golden Knights a 1-0 lead in Game 3. Whether it’s perception or reality, when those plays went Washington’s way, it cleared a huge mental hurdle for the team.
“This year as opposed to the other years, historically we never got breaks,” MacLellan said. “It was always some bounce or some post or some empty net that made us lose. But a lot of those things went our way these past four series. I don’t know if it’s karma, but I’ll take it.”
Perhaps, but that might be selling the Capitals and their players a little short. For starters, Evgeny Kuznetsov scored 32 points in 24 games and could have just as easily won the Conn Smythe Trophy instead of Ovechkin. Going into this playoff, Kuznetsov had 19 points in 39 playoff games. They had a player in Devante Smith-Pelly who came into camp without a contract and ended up scoring as many goals in the playoffs – seven – as he did in the regular season. They had a modern-day Claude Lemieux in T.J. Oshie, whose impact on the games in the final was enormous. Their GM traded a third-round pick to get Michal Kempny at the trade deadline in a move that reeked of genius.
And by the time they got to the final, the Capitals were a hungry, well-oiled machine that fairly easily shut down one of the fastest teams in the NHL. Their depth players stepped up in a big way, their goaltending was good enough to win and their star players hit their stride all at the same time.
“We were always asked, ‘What are you missing? What are you missing?’ ” Oshie said. “ ‘Why didn’t you win this year? Why couldn’t you get past Pittsburgh?’ And you kind of find out that it really has to be a full team thing. If you have 19 of 20 guys in, it just doesn’t work. Someone has all 20 guys in and they find a way to get past you. And this time we just found a way to get everyone on board.”
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