PITTSBURGH — A cathartic celebration 20 years in the making began with a poke of Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s stick. It built as the puck that Kuznetsov tapped away from Sidney Crosby made its way to Washington Capitals teammate Alexander Ovechkin.
It neared its crescendo as Ovechkin flipped it back to Kuznetsov, who at this point had split two Penguins and was streaking toward the Pittsburgh net. And it culminated jubilantly and unexpectedly in the corner moments later, with the puck in the net and Kuznetsov’s teammates mobbing him after he ended two decades of frustration with a flick of the Russian’s wrist.
The ghosts of past playoff failures, many of them at the hands of the Penguins, were gone. Dispatched over the course of six games of grit and guile, the last a 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 on Monday night that gave Washington a 4-2 series victory and a spot in the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay.
"It’s pretty emotional," Kuznetsov said after his seventh goal of the playoffs 5:27 into overtime pushed the Capitals into the NHL’s final four for just the third time in franchise history. "I don’t really have a word for it."
Maybe because there aren’t many that can accurately describe the anguish Washington has felt during much of the Ovechkin Era, one filled with post-season failure after post-season failure, many of them coming with the team on the precipice of a breakthrough.
Only this time they didn’t crumble. Even with Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky out. Even with a handful of rookies — including Australian Nate Walker — thrust into the lineup. Even on the road against a two-time defending champion with a special knack for torment.
"Again, it doesn’t matter what happened (before)," Ovechkin said. "We have to stick together. We knew it was there we just had to battle and we just had to fight through it."
Alex Chiasson scored Washington’s only goal of regulation, a shot from the right circle that gave the Capitals the lead in the second period. Braden Holtby, benched at the start of the playoffs, stopped 21 of the 22 shots he faced and received a dash of luck when Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl hit the far post early in the extra period.
The puck flitted away harmlessly. Play continued. And a few minutes later Kuznetsov’s goal joined Dale Hunter’s overtime Game 7 winner vs. Philadelphia in the first round in 1988 and Joe Juneau’s poke by Dominik Hasek vs. Buffalo in the Eastern Conference finals in 1998 in franchise lore.
"I’m not expecting myself to score game winner in that situation," Kuznetsov said.
Maybe because it’s what the Penguins always seem to do instead. Pittsburgh won nine of its 10 previous playoff meetings with Washington, including taut second-round triumphs in 2016 and 2017 on their way to becoming the first team in nearly 20 years to win consecutive Stanley Cups.
A bid for a three-peat came to an abrupt end after another sluggish start. Kris Letang scored for the Penguins and Murray finished with 28 saves but couldn’t close his legs fast enough to stop Kuznetsov’s flick.
"You look at the last couple of games, it’s a one-shot difference," Crosby said. "You need to get those big plays. Unfortunately couldn’t do it."
Washington spent the series saying its forgettable playoff history littered with squandered leads and blown opportunities — particularly against the Penguins — is not a factor. That this time is different. That this team is different. Twice the Capitals rallied in the third period to stun Pittsburgh, including a four-goal outburst in Game 5 that brought them to the brink of their first Eastern Conference finals appearance in 20 years.
That last step, however, has always been tricky. Four times previously since 2008 the Capitals won three games in the second round only to come up short in Game 7. This time, a Game 7 wasn’t even necessary.
"It’s almost embarrassing that it’s taken this long for us to get past it," Washington owner Ted Leonsis said. "But the Penguins are an unbelievable franchise. It’s an unbelievable team."
One that came up just short for the first time since Mike Sullivan took over in December 2015. The Penguins had been 4-0 in elimination games under Sullivan but had trouble getting much going as Washington cut off shooting lanes and created havoc in the neutral zone, leading to 15 Pittsburgh turnovers, the last on Kuznetsov’s poke away from a rushing Crosby that began the series-deciding sequence.
The victory wasn’t just a measure of redemption for Ovechkin but for Trotz, who has won over 750 games in the regular season but never made it to a conference final. He has now. So has his team, one that knows as giddy as they felt in the middle of a quiet PPG Paints Arena, much work remains to be done.
"We beat the Pittsburgh Penguins today and they’re a hell of a hockey team and we’re only halfway," Trotz said. "We haven’t done anything yet. It’s a good feeling getting by the Penguins because there’s a lot of skeletons in the closet. It’s a start."
NOTES: Crosby’s assist pushed his career playoff total to 185, tied with Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman for 10th most all-time. … Walker’s assist was the first ever in the playoffs by an Australian when he set up Chiasson’s score.