One hundred and five games and 40 minutes were in the books for the Washington Capitals. At that point, they were leading the Vegas Golden Knights 3–1 in the Stanley Cup Final and trailing Game 5 by a goal as the teams headed to the dressing rooms for the second intermission. A Game 6 at home was looming and old doubts about this team had rekindled. They’ve let series get away before. They can’t do that this time, not against a team that didn’t exist a year ago. Can they?
It was hard to figure out exactly how the Capitals were down a goal. From Game 2 on, Vegas shooters couldn’t find the net. Time and again they had scrounged up good looks, but then fired high or wide — or both. Or fanned on the shot. Or snapped a stick in half.
But after going without a shot through the first four minutes of the middle frame, and then watching Jakub Vrana put Washington up 1–0 with a breakaway goal six-and-a-half minutes in, the Knights somehow had beaten Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby three times in fairly quick succession.
A shot from the point by Nate Schmidt looked harmless and headed off target until it banked off Washington defenceman Matt Niskanen’s skate past Holtby. That made it one-all midway through what became a frantic period. Thirty-four seconds later, Alexander Ovechkin’s 15th of the playoffs put the Caps ahead again. But two-and-a-half minutes after that, David Perron, a healthy scratch earlier in the Final, was pushed into the crease by Caps blue-liner Christian Djoos — shoved behind Holtby, in fact. Perron looked down at his skates and saw a puck that had squeezed through Holtby’s pads. He finished off a 12-inch shot at an unobstructed net for a goal that made it two-all. And then with 29 seconds remaining in the frame, Reilly Smith put the home team ahead 3–2, the Knights first lead of any sort since early in Game 2. On the very next shift, Perron almost made it 4–2, forcing Holtby to make a clutch glove save.
After some struggles in Washington, Marc-André Fleury was back in form in the Vegas net. Yes, he’d given up the breakaway marker to Vrana and a second goal on a power play to Ovechkin, one that caromed in off his leg pad. The goalie was blameless on both, though, and had made big stops along the way.
So, the Capitals trailed after 40 and seemed like they might waste a titanic effort by Ovechkin, whose contributions only started with that power-play goal. Once derided as a floater and goal suck, he was stepping in front of shots and back-checking furiously. The Washington captain was playing his best game of the Final; his best game in the Capitals’ run through the playoffs this spring; and maybe, at age 32, having travelled thousands of tough miles in arenas hither and yon, maybe the best game of his Hall of Fame career.
I don’t imagine that Ovechkin was consciously saving his best for an occasion like this, but the first night when he actually had a chance to raise the Stanley Cup had elevated him to new heights. He had long been indisputably the most dynamic scorer in his era in the game. Most would concede that no one was more exciting to watch. Yet despite his three Hart Trophies and nearly annual appearances on the NHL’s first all-star team, few threw his name out there when talking about the best player in the game. But for a few weeks this spring, when no one really expected it at all, Alexander Ovechkin was making his case.
The Stanley Cup Final is hockey history unfolding. The one just concluded, like all others, also evoked the past. You might have thought this year was an exception given that it pitted a team with no former glory to draw on against one with no past at all. It wasn’t.
On the one side, you had the Capitals, a franchise with 43 campaigns under its belt, give or take a half-season missed here and there. Over their lifespan, the Capitals have been a decidedly mixed bag. In the beginning, almost laughable ignominy: Eight years into their existence, Washington hadn’t been a .500 team once, finishing out of the playoffs each time. It seemed like they’d be an expansion franchise forever. Then they spent an interim period in the league’s middle ranks, offering their fan base some semblance of hockey entertainment but no glory to speak of. The team’s mediocrity was fairly well defined by its retired numbers.
Through its first quarter century, only four players had their names and numbers raised to the rafters: Rod Langway, a Norris Trophy winner; winger Mike Gartner, a Hall of Famer who never won a major trophy; former team captain Dale Hunter; and Yvon Labre, a journeyman who was a fan favorite for his personality more than his on-ice ability. In more recent times, the Capitals had toyed with their fans, promising so much in regular seasons and disappointing when the games mattered most.
Across the ice, the Vegas Golden Knights were the antithesis, making their way into the playoffs and then on to the Final seven months after their very first game on the Strip — or, even more remarkably, less than two years after the league approved Bill Foley’s franchise application. This was the ultimate clean slate. Every night featured a slew of team records, a bunch of players setting a new mark in the category of ‘most games played in franchise history.’ But not all the benchmarks were so cheap — William Karlsson’s 43 regular-season goals would have broken existing team records for the Blue Jackets and the Predators.
Thus, it goes without saying that the Capitals and Knights had never met in the playoffs before. Hell, the Knights hadn’t even met each other until last September — at least, not as teammates. And yet, in watching this year’s Final, I had a sense that this seemed so familiar. Not déjà vu. Just another chapter being added to a story that began long ago.
Coming into the series, there wasn’t any dispute about the respective teams’ defining players. On the movie posters, their names would be above the title. It was Alexander Ovechkin and his Capitals versus Marc-André Fleury and his Golden Knights. The two also had personal history — Ovechkin had borne down on Fleury’s net innumerable times in the latter’s long tenure in Pittsburgh. Their paths had crossed many times over the years, though I am not the only one who presumed their intersection last spring would be the final one.
First to Ovechkin, because by force of talent and personality he jumps to the front of the line, just as he did in 2004 when he was the first pick in the NHL entry draft. He won the Calder Trophy in his first season, made a first all-star team on his first trip through the NHL and set new league standards for brashness and flair.
Against all odds, 13 seasons into his career, the image of the irrepressible 20-year-old endures. If you weren’t checking your watch, you might not have noticed that Ovechkin was now the second-oldest player on the Capitals’ roster (behind defenceman Brooks Orpik) or that he played his 1,000th regular-season game in April. Maybe you hold on to the image of the original Ovechkin because it provided such a sharp contrast to Sidney Crosby, his cautious-by-nature, play-it-by-the-books nemesis. Or maybe because he came into the league as seemingly a fully formed man and player.
Last year, after the Capitals were knocked out of the playoffs yet again by the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington’s general manager, Brian MacLellan, stated what he believed to be the cold, hard truth about his franchise player. “For him moving forward, he’s getting into the low 30s [in age] and he’s going to have to think of ways that he can evolve into a player that still has a major impact on the game,” MacLellan said. “The game is getting faster; he’s going to have to train in a different way, a more speed way than a power way. He’s going to have to make adjustments to stay relevant in the game.”
MacLellan’s words had to sting but Ovechkin would have already heard similar critiques. (Including from me in a biography I co-wrote with Damien Cox back in 2010.) Every playoff disappointment prompted darts from those in the industry, media and fans. He’s selfish. He’s mercurial. He’s undisciplined.
To Ovechkin’s credit, he has grown and evolved in recent years, on and off the ice. Where once he had a passion for scoring, he now has a passion for playing and winning. He’s more aware of everything around him — you can see his attention to detail in his game and hear his picking of spots when talking to reporters in the dressing room. He neither sacrificed his love of scoring nor adopted even a bit phoniness; the man’s emotional maturity simply caught up with his physical being. “Ovi’s been on a mission,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said during the Final against Vegas. “A lot of things were said at the end of last year in the press, [on] Twitter — whatever. And they’re hurtful, and I think he took it personally.”
That fire was evidenced by the goal that gave the Capitals their first chance at the Stanley Cup during his tenure: a one-touch slap shot from just inside the blue line one minute into Game 7 in Tampa in the Eastern Conference Final. It was far from the most spectacular of his career — it had nothing on that number he did on Brian Boucher in Phoenix all those years back. Still, the shot that Ovechkin wired past the Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevskiy, his 12th goal in the first three rounds, was dynamic enough and came in the time of greatest need.
Fleury had one such moment with Pittsburgh — in the dying seconds of Game 7 in the Cup Final in Detroit, he came from one side of the net to the other and threw himself in front of a Nicklas Lidstrom shot that would have forced overtime. That, however, was nine years ago, yesterday’s news. Fleury had himself been the NHL’s first-overall pick in 2003, the year before Ovechkin’s draft.
Going into these playoffs he was the second oldest Knight (behind another defenceman, Deryk Engelland) and the oldest No. 1 goaltender in the post-season. In counterpoint to Ovechkin, Fleury had no individual trophies but three Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic gold medal. Two asterisks accompany the aforementioned triumphs, though: He was the designated starter on only the first of those three Cup winners; and he was in civvies, the back-up to the back-up, in the Olympic gold-medal game.
Many, probably most, imagined that Fleury’s landing in Las Vegas was the launch of an extended farewell tour. And when he missed most of the first half of the season with a concussion, it seemed like that farewell tour would be an unfortunately abbreviated one. Even when Fleury came back and led the Knights to — it beggars belief to type this — the top seed in the division, skepticism prevailed when it came to the team having an impact in the post-season.
Many, probably most, figured that the Los Angeles Kings would put the Knights in their place — too many veterans carried over from the Stanley Cup winners in L.A. And then Fleury played perhaps the best hockey of his career, limiting the Kings to three goals in four games. And so it continued, stunningly, in the next two rounds, San Jose and Winnipeg hardly being able to beat Fleury at all. Goaltenders outright steal games every post-season. One goaltender might be the difference-maker in a single series. But to get his team to the Final, no one had posted a stat like Fleury’s: a .947 save percentage through three rounds.
Even then, one NHL goaltending coach told me: “Fleury’s never been a technically great goaltender. He’s not a robot. He’s super-competitive. He’s aggressive. He depends on athleticism to cover up for mistakes. He’s had unreal numbers, but logic tells you that water is going to find its level eventually. It’s just a matter of whether you can get four more wins before it does.”
I had met George McPhee briefly when he worked as Brian Burke’s lieutenant with the Canucks in the mid-’90s, but didn’t log real time with him until soon after he landed the GM’s post in Washington in ’97. I remembered him vaguely from his playing days — mostly as the guy who won the Hobey Baker Award at Bowling Green and then scored three goals in playoff games with the Rangers before he’d ever skated a regular-season NHL minute.
As it turned out, McPhee’s playing days were relatively short: 115 NHL games in all. He divided his time between the big club, the minors and, in the off-season, jobs on Wall Street and time at Rutgers Law School. Still, he made a big impression in those 115 appearances: He was a fierce fighter, becoming a fan favorite at Madison Square Garden. In 49 games in the 1984–85 season, he had 12 fights and took on, among others, Marty McSorley, Scott Stevens and Dave Langevin, some of the most physically intimidating players in the league.
Which is why, when I met him, I had to fight off the impulse to say: “Seriously, you’re George McPhee?”
The man who had taken on the toughest of heavyweights was, by hockey standards, no more than a middleweight, maybe even a welterweight. Five-foot-nine(-ish), 170 pounds. He retired at age 30 because of an abdominal tear that still bothered him years later. Really, though, his career was shortened by the fact that he played harder than his body could stand. He had gone as far as his seemingly unlimited will could take him.
“George was actually the last kid cut from teams that Brian [MacLellan] and I played for in peewee and bantam,” says Paul Kistner, who grew up in Guelph, Ont. with McPhee and played with the two GMs. “He had an incredibly competitive nature. I think George had a tough upbringing. His dad worked in a factory and died when George was in high school. Where other kids could count on the support of [their] parents, George had to take on things on his own at a young age.”
Says former NHL referee Paul Devorski, who played with McPhee in Guelph and has remained a lifelong friend: “George would pile into the backseat of one of [his teammates’] cars to get a ride to the arena. He had to be pretty independent and I think his family’s story had a lot to do with his competitive drive. It was everywhere. In school, he had to have the top marks. On the ice, he didn’t care how big you are — he was going there and it didn’t matter if you were in his way. He was skilled, sure. But it was all about his drive.”
If you didn’t know his backstory, you might not pick up on that fire. McPhee’s manner would take you in an entirely different direction. The little tough guy usually has an outsized attitude, but McPhee was soft-spoken in the extreme. He made you lean in to pick up every measured word.
I figured that McPhee had landed in a good situation in Washington. He was coming in after then-owner Abe Pollin gassed David Poile, who had made a few bold trades but just missed out on the playoffs. Which is to say, McPhee wasn’t walking into a rebuild. His team wasn’t a long way from Stanley Cup contention. In fact, they’d make it to the Final in his first season in Washington, though the luck of the draw meant that they only had to beat the fifth, sixth and seventh seeds to meet Detroit, the defending Stanley Cup champions, in the ’98 Final.
When I think of George McPhee, I think back to one conversation that I had with him after Game 2 of that series, one of the briefer ones but the most telling nonetheless. The Capitals had outplayed the Wings in Game 1 but lost 2–1. In Game 2, they had a 4–2 lead in the third period and looked set to square the series, but the home team rallied for two late goals and won it on a tally by Kris Draper in overtime. Washington was unlucky not to come away with a split and, a bounce here or there, could have easily swept the Wings in their own building.
McPhee was standing in the hallway outside the visitors’ dressing room in Joe Louis Arena and doing his best to blend in with the scenery. I said something to the effect of “they took them to the wall” and “gonna be a long series.” I’ll never forget McPhee’s reply: “That got away and it might have been our best chance,” he said.
You might ask how that stands in memory. Well, for one thing, it fit his personality. He’s conservative by nature if not politics. He’s a skeptic until proven otherwise. Some put losses behind them without a look in the rear-view or maybe take some promise away from two tight defeats. And then there’s the intensity. McPhee hadn’t simply been a spectator in that game. He was fully invested, and physically and emotionally drained. But mostly I remember what McPhee said because it was prophetic, absolutely dead on. When he spoke in the first-person plural — “our best chance” — it proved true on two levels: Until this spring, that game in Detroit was as close as either the Capitals or George McPhee would come to the Stanley Cup.
Of course, McPhee’s fingerprints were all over both the team’s in this year’s Final. The architect of a Golden Knights squad whose first-year success is without precedent in any major North American pro sports league is also the man who oversaw Capitals drafts that formed the core of Washington’s 2017–18 squad, selecting a group that includes Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, Tom Wilson and André Burakovsky.
Says one former Washington employee about the organization after McPhee was fired by owner Ted Leonsis in 2014: “There really wasn’t a massive turnover in staff, anything like a house-cleaning. And George left the cupboard in pretty good shape.”
To get into any arena during the playoffs, you have to run a gauntlet of sweater-wearers and face-painters. That’s just hockey culture. The playoffs draw capacity crowds inside the arena and thousands more who just, well, loiter, who partake by proximity and maybe drink in the game on a screen provided by the team or one found in a nearby establishment.
And then there’s Las Vegas.
Dozens of men, women and children strutted around in gold lamé, as if they’d walked off the cover of 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong. Dozens more, whole families, dressed as if they were putting in a shift at Medieval Times or working as extras on the set of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yes, they had tickets to a game, but in Vegas they were expecting a show. It couldn’t have been comfortable in either shiny suits or chainmail. The temperature downtown was touching 100 degrees Fahrenheit around the time of the puck drop at 5 p.m. No matter, there’d be relief in the arena.
The Golden Knights rolled out a carpet for Michael Buffer to do introductions and his “Let’s get ready to rumble!” shtick, and if they had left it at that, it would have sufficed. If they had left it at a light show, it would have sufficed. If they had left it with a drum corps dressed like automatons in strobe-light sunglasses, it would have more than sufficed. But Las Vegas is not a place of small excesses so the team treated the fans to the whole megillah: layer upon layer of some mythic narrative approximating a condensed season of Game of Thrones, building up to a sword fight with a knight in gold vanquishing some poor schmo in a cape of Capitals red.
It was a hard act to follow and, really, the main event didn’t live up to the opener. No one will forget the night; no one will remember the hockey.
The game was historically significant, but it was no aesthetic beauty. Down the line, everyone who skated in it will wake up in a cold sweat, reliving the nightmare that was the pad at T-Mobile Arena that night — the ice that seemed like some amalgam of distilled water and Ivory soap. There was no counting the number of lost edges. For a time, there might have been some novelty value in watching NHL stars struggle with simply starting, stopping and cornering — like kids in a tyke house league. And given the desert heat, yeah, you expect the quality of the ice to be a bit dodgy. Still, it was far from ideal for showcasing the game.
The final score, 6-4 for the Knights, captured the frantic energy of the game, which had five lead changes, the last of them seeing the home team rally back from 4-3 down early in the third. Tom Wilson had deflected a shot by Ovechkin past Fleury a minute into the period to put the Capitals up, but you knew it couldn’t end there.
Just a couple of shifts later, Vegas fourth-liner Ryan Reeves scored from just outside the paint and did so only after he dropped Caps defenceman John Carlson with a textbook crosscheck. The home team took the lead on a goal by Tomas Nosek — standing at the edge of Braden Holtby’s crease, Nosek knocked home a long, searching, cross-ice pass from defenceman Shea Theodore. Despite the chaos that had reigned for nearly 50 minutes, Nosek’s finish was clinical, the pass inspired.
The story of this Knights team wasn’t to be found in that pre-game sword fight but rather in that last goal. When McPhee was building the team, he looked for a certain type of player: those who’d been denied opportunity. With his scoring numbers, William Karlsson was the most frequently cited case of underrating — and with cause. It’s not fair to say that he struggled to score in Columbus. Really, he struggled just to get meaningful shifts.
Theodore, though, is maybe as representative of the building of VGK as any player in the lineup. Even though he was taken with Anaheim’s first-round pick in 2013, he couldn’t break through a logjam of talent on the Ducks depth chart. “As a player, you have to believe in yourself but it’s tough when you don’t have a chance to show what you can do,” he said after Game 1. “It can be tough on your confidence and if you don’t have confidence it’s hard to play at all.”
The pass to Nosek took something more than confidence. It took a lot of nerve, especially given the circumstances: the third period of a game in the Stanley Cup Final. It would have taken more if he had the puck on the blue line and had still been trying to earn a spot with the Ducks. Pressure is one thing, uncertainty another. Asked if he could have made that pass if he had been called up by Anaheim in seasons past, Theodore hazarded a guess. “Maybe,” he said.
And maybe that was the lesson to draw from the Vegas experience this season. When we think of the game that we don’t see, we think of the minors, of the bus leagues, of games outside the public eye. There’s another game we don’t see, though, one that isn’t played at all. It exists on a theoretical level, featuring players who are healthy scratches and black aces, those who have skill and nowhere to go with it. Every organization has players who, like Theodore, spend whole seasons waiting for a chance. And in seeing the Knights, whether it’s Karlsson, Theodore or, say, Nosek, who was lost in the mix in the Detroit system, you’re only left to wonder how many NHLers over the years waited and never got the chance to show what they could do.
The exuberance in Las Vegas carried over into Game 2 but by night’s end it had given way to dread.
You could put the darkening mood down to the 3-2 loss to Washington. You could put it down to the Capitals earning a split despite opening on the road. You could put it down to Alexander Ovechkin rounding into form, scoring a power-play goal that put Washington out in front five minutes into the second period. You could put it down to Nicklas Backstrom finally looking fully over the hand injury that sidelined him for a stretch against Tampa Bay. You could put it down to an impressive Lars Eller filling in for Evgeny Kuznetsov, who was knocked out of the game early.
Really, though, it all came down to one play. Boil this series down to a single highlight to be included in the time capsule and it’s this one, a play that will haunt the Knights, from McPhee and the rest in the front office right down to those who sweat for their keep.
The Knights were trailing by one with a couple of minutes to go in regulation when Cody Eakin found Alex Tuch across the ice, stationed by the left circle. Holtby was committed to his glove side and thus Tuch had nothing but net in front of him when he took Eakin’s pass cleanly and one-timed it. You could see fans behind the glass jumping to their feet. The celebration had started, but it gave way to puzzlement. Why was play still going on?
Holtby had somehow reached across the crease in time, fully extended, and got his paddle on the puck. It was impossible to imagine in real time. That got downgraded to just plain stunning on further review.
Square feet of open net.
A few square inches covered and only for a moment.
And, yeah, in hindsight, the series.
Holtby’s save was the only thing less likely than the Golden Knights’ season.
“To me, it was the hockey gods,” Barry Trotz said later. “Once he made that save, I knew we were gonna win the game.”
Yeah, no kidding.
Play continued and the Knights scrambled trying to generate another meaningful scoring chance, but, really, what would it have mattered? Vegas’s edge in the series was supposed to be Marc-André Fleury. Yes, Holtby shut out Tampa Bay in the last two games of the Eastern Conference Final, but those were his first two shutouts of the season. When the playoffs started lo those many weeks before, there was no guarantee Holtby was even going to play.
The starting job was an apparent coin flip between him and Philipp Grubauer, and Holtby’s .907 save percentage during the regular season was a sharp drop-off from his Vezina Trophy form of two seasons ago. Grubauer had far better numbers in 28 starts. He didn’t have Holtby’s playoff experience, but then again, what did the Capitals really have to show for those five post-seasons beyond compounding frustration? Thus did Trotz start Grubauer in two games against Columbus in the first round.
The barometric pressure in T-Mobile dropped steadily from the save through to the horn and the Capitals pouring off the bench to congratulate and thank Holtby, who had made 36 other saves with varying degrees of difficulty on the night, five in a single 30-second span while the Knights ran a five-on-three power play.
And in the home team’s dressing room after the game, it seemed like the air had completely gone out of the Knights. Through three rounds, they had looked across at teams weary and deflated after running into a hot goaltender. If they paused in front of the mirror after Game 2 they could see those same expressions. And it was also on the face of George McPhee outside the dressing room. Twenty years later, once more, one got away, maybe his team’s best chance.
If hope for Vegas remained at all, it was in the one dark cloud hanging over Washington’s win — Kuznetsov’s injury. Defenceman Brayden McNabb had taken the playoffs’ leading scorer into the boards with extreme prejudice, like Jimmy Snuka going off the top turnbuckle. It was clean but mean, a hit that was both high and low. McNabb is listed at six-foot-four and there might have been two-and-a-half inches of him that didn’t flush Ovechkin’s centre.
Kuznetsov went awkwardly into the boards, practically disappearing from view under the contact. When he emerged, he was bent over at the waist, clutching his left hand against his body — it was impossible to tell whether the damage was to his shoulder or wrist. He went directly to the dressing room and didn’t return to play. Kuznetsov was the team’s second-leading scorer behind Ovechkin during the regular season and if he was out for any stretch at all, maybe the Knights would have life.
Kuznetsov not only returned to the lineup for Game 3 but, from his very first shift in Washington’s 3-1 victory, he seemed utterly unaffected by his injury. Barely a minute into the game, he bore down on Fleury on a 2-on-1 with Ovechkin, who couldn’t quite finish the cross-ice setup. Though Trotz had said Kuznetsov’s availability was going to be a game-time decision, the centre was almost inarguably the best player on the ice. “When you’re hurt, you play better always,” he’d say later. “You have extra energy. Sometimes it’s even better for you.”
Though the game was scoreless through 20 minutes, the Knights had few decent moments and were really just barely holding on. They had been in flight in Game 1 and much of Game 2, clearly the faster team, closing almost instantly on their forecheck. In Game 3, they seemed tentative and unnerved. The home team physically hammered them and nearly shut them out in the faceoff circle. It was a comprehensive whupping and, given the direction of play, just a matter of time for the Capitals.
Ovechkin opened the scoring early in the second period. The goal captured the game in microcosm: a scramble around the net with Washington first to the puck; Caps winger Tom Wilson causing mayhem away from the puck; Fleury dashing side to side; Fleury leaving his crease and colliding with Caps defenceman John Carlson; Knights forward David Perron standing on the goal line, ready to take one for the team; Fleury scrambling back into the picture, searching for the puck; Kuznetsov wheeling through the slot and putting a shot on net; and finally, Ovechkin fighting off the check of Brayden McNabb to put home a rebound before crashing face-first to the ice.
The roar wasn’t just for the goal and the lead, it was for career achievement. Again, Ovechkin’s first goal in a Final in front of his home crowd didn’t come on a trademark howitzer shot and didn’t feature high-end skill. Though lacking grace, it more than made up for it in strength and force of will.
“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,” Trotz said. “I thought that was a little bit of poetic justice, if you will, for all the tough times.”
Kuznetsov scored what turned out to be the winner a few shifts later. Jay Beagle forced a turnover at the blue line and broke out with Kuznetsov coming down the right wing on a 2-on-1. Kuznetsov looked off Colin Miller, who defended the pass, leaving Fleury to face the shooter alone. Fleury moved well out to challenge Kuznetsov, who found the net blocker-side and showed no ill effects of injury when he flapped his arms in his signature celly.
It was hard to imagine the Knights getting back in the game — Fleury made a couple of clutch saves that kept up faint hope, including one great catch of a shot by Wilson on yet another odd-man rush. Vegas managed to get one back, against all play, midway in the third period: Holtby mishandled a puck and was fully behind his net when Tomas Nosek found himself alone in front of it.
But with six minutes to go, the Capitals clinched the contest. It started with Beagle again. Dogged in pursuit, he stole the puck from Shea Theodore in the Knights defensive zone. Beagle hit Devante Smith-Pelly with a pass in stride and the winger authoritatively beat Fleury with a move that no fourth-liner has the right to try outside of a game of shinny. Trotz couldn’t contain his glee, so he didn’t try. “I think we’re getting stronger as this series goes on,” he said.
The truth of that appraisal was obvious both on the ice and off. The Capitals couldn’t have been a looser bunch. The Golden Knights tried to put a brave face on over their desperation but sometimes couldn’t disguise it. Normally a placid soul, coach Gerard Gallant snapped at reporters when asked pretty innocuous questions in his press conference. Said Knights winger James Neal: “I think we’ve got to have some poise, settle down a little bit and get back to what’s made us successful, and we just haven’t got there. That’s them doing a good job for sure, but at the same time, we’ve got to get better each game, and we just haven’t.”
In fact, the Knights went completely sideways in Game 4. Their frustration was plain. From his first shift on, Neal tried to bring more edge to his game and send a message that Vegas wouldn’t be physically intimidated the way the Blue Jackets, Penguins and Lightning had been for stretches in Washington’s run through the Eastern Conference. Being tougher isn’t necessarily being better. Five minutes in, Erik Haula found Neal at the open side of the Caps net and hit him on the tape with a pass that Neal, a former first all-star team winger and one-time 40-goal scorer, would finish nine out of 10 times. He clanged it off the post. It was just that sort of night.
William Karlsson was impossible to find on the ice, ditto his winger Reilly Smith. Jonathan Marchessault, the final third of the Knights’ first line was slightly less inconspicuous but to no useful end. The old canard is that your best players have to be your best players; the Knights’ best had turned into placeholders.
The final score was 6-2 for Washington, but it didn’t even feel that close. The Caps ran out to a 3-0 lead on goals by T.J. Oshie, Wilson and Smith-Pelly, the last coming with 20 seconds left in the period. Kuznetsov wound up with four assists, which prompted a seemingly unthinkable line of conversation: Would it be possible that, with a Washington victory in Game 5, the Conn Smythe might go to someone other than Ovechkin? And if they tried to hand it to Kuznetsov, would he decline it?
That sort of talk would seem to risk getting out over their skis, but no less than the coach was sending the cue that this one was over except for the formalities. With three wins to his team’s credit in the Final, Trotz was already offering up observations that are usually dampened by champagne. “We’ve been in a lot of moments in the last 10 years, and I’ve been here — this is my fourth year — we’ve had a lot of moments, not as many good ones as we’d like,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride in our dressing room.”
Just as the scene after Vegas’s loss in Game 2 evoked the McPhee-led Caps’ overtime loss in Detroit 20 years ago, so too did Game 5 seem almost eerily familiar. I finally placed the feeling: The gold-medal game at the 2003 World Junior Championship in Halifax; the first time that Alexander Ovechkin and Marc-André Fleury crossed paths.
Ovechkin was just 17 at the tournament but given his play in the KHL and international age-group tournaments, he was already the player of greatest interest on the Russian team, the defending champions. For their part, the Canadian teens didn’t throw a scare into anybody and had overachieved in just making the final. That unexpected success sat largely on the narrow-but-well-padded shoulders of Fleury, a kid from just outside Montreal who was playing for Cape Breton in the QMJHL.
While Ovechkin was a known quantity, Fleury hadn’t been on anyone’s radar. “Dan Blackburn, a guy who had played with the [New York] Rangers at 19, was supposed to be our No. 1 and Fleury wasn’t even at the summer evaluation camp,” says Brendan Bell, a former NHLer who was on the blue line of that Canadian team. “Fleury was draft-eligible, and that was completely out of the box for Canada to go with a young goalie with no international experience. But he was that good. He just stole games for us … all the way to the final.”
Over the course of just a few days, fans in Halifax adopted Fleury as their own. Says Pascal Vincent, who coached the netminder in Cape Breton and has remained his good friend over the years: “Marc-André always has that smile on his face. He’s a great competitor, but it’s not about ego. He wants to be the best teammate that he can possibly be. That’s why he was there in Pittsburgh all those years and was important to that team. He earns respect and gives respect. And without wearing a ‘C’ or trying to take charge, he’s a leader wherever he goes. People rally around him.”
In the final, somehow Canada was up 2-1 in the third period but the score didn’t reflect play. The Russians were surging. First Igor Grigorenko tied the game four minutes into the third period. Then midway through the period came the awful sequence: The puck hit the stick of Yuri Trubachev in the slot and Fleury was thoroughly screened. When next the goalie saw the puck, he was fishing it out of his net.
Over the course of the remaining minutes, Canada couldn’t muster a scoring chance, couldn’t even generate possession in the Russian end. It was a thorough shutdown and everyone in the arena knew it. The home team put forth its best effort but mostly out of instinct rather than belief. The Russians had gotten better as the tournament went along and they’d played their best as the clock wound down.
I remember being down at ice level in the last few minutes of that game. The Russians were smiling and even laughing on the bench — not a great look but not a crime either. It was worse after the game, though. Ovechkin and his teammates taunted the Canadians, who were inconsolable, disquieting the crowd. It was ugly to say the least.
Fleury was named the tournament’s best goaltender and the MVP but there couldn’t have been hollower consolation. Somehow, he kept his composure better than most of his teammates. “For Marc-André, wins and losses are behind him. He has a great make-up,” says Pascal Vincent. “I was a young coach at the time so I didn’t appreciate it then the way I do now. When he came back to Cape Breton, I told him to take some time off but he wanted to be around the team and get back to playing. He had been through something that would be very tough or disappointing to other people at any age and he took it in stride even though he was just a teenager.”
Leaving the arena that night, I saw Ovechkin and the Russian kids shouting and laughing in the street, drinking vodka, smoking cigarettes and walking around bare-chested though it was a cold January night. The game was a party. Winning was so easy. I’m sure that they imagined that championships would come around every winter.
In the third period of Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena, you could tell Alexander Ovechkin was not going to be denied, not after waiting so long, not after suffering so many disappointments. This was not going to be put off until the weekend in Washington. This wasn’t going to run deep into the night in overtime. You could see it from Ovechkin’s very first shift in what would be the last period of the season. You could see it on the bench, where he amped up his teammates, almost maniacally cheering them on. Even with the Capitals a goal down he was in a state akin to religious ecstasy.
Ovechkin would say later that the Washington dressing room was chatter-free during the second intermission — by Game No. 106, everything has already been said. In the silence, the message was understood. “We know we just keep doing what we’ve been doing,” he told reporters. “Stay the same way. Stay focused.”
Ovechkin was as good as his unspoken words. Coming back to support his blue-liners when Vegas was on the rush, he brought the same passion and consummate effort that he had previously displayed mostly in looking to feed his hunger for goals. He did have a chance at a second tally. The sequence played out on a power play five minutes in and tracked just like his goal in the second period. This time Fleury was a beat faster, going post-to-post and comfortably making the save.
The game-tying and Cup-winning goals were set in motion by mistakes from Knights defenceman Luca Sbisa and came off the sticks of a couple of Washington role players.
Midway through the period, Sbisa chased down a dump-in and coughed it up — Brooks Orpik found Devante Smith-Pelly, who beat Fleury for the third time in as many games. Hard to imagine that Smith-Pelly was essentially looking for work last off-season and generating no great interest after New Jersey bought out his contract.
A couple of minutes later, Sbisa again lost the puck and then failed to tie up Lars Eller, who skated to the net, gained inside position behind Fleury and swatted home the puck as it rolled out from under the netminder.
Like Ovechkin’s Russian team in Halifax, the Capitals grew stronger as time wound down. In the visiting management box, MacLellan kept stone-faced and said little. “Vegas played their best game of the series,” he said. “You don’t know what’s next.”
If MacLellan didn’t know, he was alone on that count. I’m sure he just didn’t want to tempt fate. As he noted down on the ice, after he had been passed the Cup and passed it on to his assistant GM Ross Mahoney, his team had benefitted from expectations that ranged from low to non-existent. “We struggled most of the year and got mentally strong as we went through all those things,” MacLellan said. “You know, we’re carrying a lot of stuff from last year into the season. This year was the opposite of the last two seasons, when we were expected to win. We thought we might be good. We didn’t know.”
And while he enthused about the performances of Kuznetsov and Backstrom and Holtby and others, MacLellan returned to Ovechkin, the captain who, after hearing his GM talk about the need to “evolve,” changed nothing much beyond his priorities. “Alex has just matured as a player,” MacLellan said. “The whole playoffs he played a team game. He played good within our structure, good in the D-zone. He didn’t force shots like he has in the past. He played a great team game. He’s more of a captain now. He’s just more mature overall.”
For Ovechkin, there was no taunting in Las Vegas a half-a-lifetime after the world juniors in Halifax. He fell into the handshake line. In fact, he not only shook hands with every one of the Golden Knights but embraced most. He held up the line to talk to Fleury. There’s no knowing if Fleury managed to smile or not. He kept his mask on throughout.
Big Read: Bruce McNall, the man who 'made hockey cool'
Hollywood heavyweight. NHL visionary. Convicted felon. The legacy of Bruce McNall — who brought Wayne Gretzky to L.A. — is, well, it's complicated.