WASHINGTON, D.C. – Twenty years they’ve waited. Thirteen of them he’s pushed and fought and wondered whether a night like this would ever arrive.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the most iconic moment of a long-overdue return to hosting the Stanley Cup Final had nothing to do with Alex Ovechkin scoring for the Washington Capitals – even if he did that, too, naturally.
It was when teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov went post-and-in for the eventual winner that we saw the true emotional release. For a city and an organization and its beloved superstar.
"It’s just automatic. You just get excited," said Ovechkin, who thrust both arms in the air and screamed from the bottom of his skate blades.
Facing the biggest game in franchise history on Saturday, the Capitals summoned their strongest performance of this Final. They transformed into the Big Red Machine. A 3-1 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights gave them a 2-1 lead in the series and left them two wins shy of a potential Stanley Cup parade around America’s most famous monuments.
Ovechkin is seemingly willing this into existence – racking up eight shot attempts in the opening period of Game 3 before diving to knock a loose puck behind Marc-Andre Fleury after just 1:10 played in the second.
"I thought it was sort of the right thing in a playoff game, our first victory in the Final at home, that Alex would score the first goal," said coach Barry Trotz. "I thought that was a little bit of poetic justice, if you will, for all the tough times. I love the goal. We kept it alive, maybe four, five, six chances to keep it alive and it finally ended up in the back of the net."
Ovechkin has now scored a team-leading 14 goals this spring, tying John Druce’s franchise record, and is still celebrating those scored by others with more enthusiasm than his own.
"Yeah, he was possessed out there. That’s a good way to put it, I think," said teammate John Carlson. "He’s playing with passion and energy and joy and he’s a one-man wrecking crew. How committed he is. It’s the best he’s played in my opinion."
That’s really saying something after the kind of career Ovechkin has already authored. But there’s no doubt about how much all of this means when you see the joy exploding from him like a Fourth of July fireworks show.
This is as committed as we’ve seen the captain, and as committed as we’ve seen the Caps.
Even though Ovechkin doesn’t believe his team has played its best game, this was a step forward from the two at T-Mobile Arena. They bogged down the neutral zone and took away the middle of the ice from the quick-strike Golden Knights, making them look ordinary for the first time all playoffs.
"I believe it’s not easy to play against us. We don’t have a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone," said Kuznetsov. "We really feel this playoff is about power play, PK, plays between the blue lines."
The Caps were also carried by goaltender Braden Holtby – again so sharp, minus the third-period giveaway that handed Tomas Nosek his third goal of the series – not to mention Kuznetsov, who shook off two days of injury speculation to score the game-winner.
He was knocked out of Wednesday’s game in Vegas by a Brayden McNabb hit that seemed to injure his left shoulder. But that didn’t keep Kuznetsov from breaking out his silky flying bird celebration after beating Fleury with a perfectly placed shot.
The Russian centre was coming up his off wing on a 3-on-1 rush and managed to place the puck just between the right pad and blocker of the Vegas goaltender, banking it off the right post and in. That sent Ovechkin and the sellout crowd into delirium.
"It’s emotional stuff," said Kuznetsov, who never doubted he’d play despite the uncertainty portrayed publicly. "Like Michael Jordan, when he play his best game he’s sore, right? Got hurt, 53 points. When you’re hurt you play a little better always. You have extra energy."
Beyond the relentless Jonathan Marchessault and a motivated Alex Tuch, Vegas didn’t offer much offensive pushback. Nosek scored at 3:29 of the third period after linemate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare pressure Holtby into a turnover behind his goal.
However, Devante Smith-Pelly got that one back with six minutes to play – taking advantage of a Shea Theodore gaffe – and giving a fanbase that has suffered more than most a more comfortable ride to the finish.
For an 11-year member of the organization like Nicklas Backstrom, it was a night he’ll never forget because it was a night unlike any other before it.
"No, this is the best feeling. This is where you want to be, too, at the Stanley Cup Final," said Backstrom. "Great game."
They even managed to chant "We Want The Cup!" as the seconds ticked down inside Capital One Arena.
After 43 long years, they can finally see it start coming into view.