Capitals, Ovechkin finally slay Penguins, No. 87 in playoffs

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in overtime as the Washington Capitals beat the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 to advance to the Eastern Conference final.

PITTSBURGH — One navy-blue towel is draped over Alex Ovechkin’s shoulders and another is wrapped around his waist. A gold chain carrying the No. 8 and a cross hangs around his neck, and there’s a red Capitals ball cap atop his head.

This is Ovi, shortly after the long-awaited biggest victory of his storied NHL career.

“Oh,” the 32-year-old says, shaking his head, saying what really doesn’t need to be said, “Obviously, I feel great. I’ve never been in this position before and now, looking forward.”

Forward, finally. These Washington Capitals have done it. They’re onto the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in two decades. They’ve slayed the perennial champion Pittsburgh Penguins, and in six games, no less. Cue Etta James’ At last.

It happened in overtime, because of course it did. It happened in the absence of one of Washington’s best players, an injured Nicklas Backstrom, because of course it had to. It happened after the Penguins hit a post in overtime, and expletives were aplenty on Washington’s bench, because what else could they say? Nothing in the post-season has ever been easy for these Capitals.

The winning play involved Ovechkin, because it had to, really. It came 5 minutes and 27 seconds into overtime, when No. 8 fed a pass up to linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov, the smooth-skating centreman who split the defence and then slid the puck between the legs of goaltender Matt Murray, sending this crowd at PPG Paints Arena into a shocked silence. The Penguins will not be accomplishing that Stanley Cup three-peat.

Ovechkin and his teammates swarmed Kuznetsov, and they said things to each other that goalie Braden Holtby says “I don’t think I can repeat.”

But let’s repeat this, quickly go over it again: The Capitals are moving on to the conference final for the first time in 20 years. For the first time since Ovechkin started playing in this league. For the first time, No. 8’s team has beaten No. 87’s in a playoff series, having been dealt defeat at this stage in each of the last two years.

In the handshake line, Crosby wished Ovechkin good luck, because that’s what you do, Ovechkin says, with a grin: “I’ve been in this position lots of times.”

Not this time, though. He had just one thought when he saw Kuznetsov put that puck in the net: “Thank god it’s happening.”

Kuznetsov flapped his wings and pretended he was a bird while celebrating—his two-year-old daughter is a big fan of that move. It’s the biggest goal of his NHL career, no doubt, and the centreman says while it doesn’t matter who scored it, he will acknowledge that beating the Penguins felt extra special.

“Yeah, I don’t wanna lie, it tastes a little bit better,” the Game 6 hero says, grinning. “This feels very nice, you keep playing hockey. It’s unbelievable.”

What’s ahead for Washington is a match-up against the Tampa Bay Lightning, for a shot at advancing to the Stanley Cup final, a shot at the trophy this franchise—the NHL’s best each of the last two regular seasons—has never won.

That no major D.C. sports franchise had advanced to a final four in 20 years wasn’t known to Holtby, who was again exceptional, facing 22 shots in all. “I think us as a group, we wanted to give our city more from a playoff standpoint,” he says. “But more doesn’t mean a conference final. More means a Stanley Cup.”

They’re half-way there, and what a grind it has been. In Game 6, the Capitals were without Backstrom, who blocked a shot and injured his hand in Game 5, and they got their only regulation goal from the least likely of sources, their fourth line.

Winger Nathan Walker had already made history this Monday night as the first Australian to ever play in an NHL playoff game, and then he became the first Aussie to register a point on said stage. Walker tore around the Penguins’ net early in the second, then came around the other side and dished a pass to Alex Chiasson, who one-timed it under Murray’s arm, glove-side.

This game was one in which you could tell there was lots on the line, a bunch of players who’ve never made it past this stage (Ovechkin, Holtby, Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie, etc.) and a bunch who are so used to winning here (Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jake Guentzel, Matt Murray, coach Mike Sullivan, etc.) You could describe much of this tilt in a few uncomplimentary words, like tight, sloppy and desperate. Both teams looked nervy, and you knew they would.

“We knew it was not going to be an easy game, it’s not going to be a pretty game,” Ovechkin says. “I think it was not lots of chance over there. I think both teams know that one mistake can cost us the series or we go to Game 7.”

The Penguins tied things up just past the half-way mark in the second period, on a point shot through traffic from veteran defender, Kris Letang, a shot that caught the stick of Capitals forward Chandler Stephenson. The goal sent this yellow-clad crowd into an eruption of “Let’s go Pens!” cheers, and some taunting “Holt-by!” chants.

Holtby, though, was the only real consistent star in this game. Despite seeing just 22 shots, he kept the Capitals in this one, his biggest save coming with little over two minutes left in regulation, when Bryan Rust fed Crosby a cross-ice pass, which the captain one-time redirected. Holtby was there with the pad save, and again when Rust jumped on a bouncing rebound.

As head coach Barry Trotz says, “I think you’re seeing another level of Braden.”

He’s certainly dialled in, after losing his net and sitting out the first two games of these playoffs, then earning that starting spot back in spades.

“We’ve had to work for what we’ve got and I think it’s been a good thing for building our group,” Holtby says, “building our maturity as a group, and now we gotta refocus and make sure we keep that same mindset going forward.”

Yes, the Capitals are going forward.

Capitals owner Ted Leonsis stood in the middle of the locker room with a smile on his face. He’d already told Ovechkin he was proud of him, “that when the big moments arrived, he was there at the end in three games, three wins. He deserved it,” Leonsis says. “I was very proud of him sticking with it.”

And the way Leonsis sees it, the way this game ended was poetic. “Alex’s place in history is pretty set, and now he’s said that he doesn’t care about individual accolades, he wants team wins. I think you saw that. You saw how hard he hustled, he threw the big pass for the win. That’s a moment that says how he’s arrived as a player.”

“It’s special, special game for him for sure,” Kuznetsov adds. “He did a lot of good things in this league for so many years, and that’s, like I said, special day.”

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For Trotz, there’s a bond that’s developed after losing at this stage so many times. “It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn,” he says. “I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns, and he’s a great player in this league…

“Sometimes it just doesn’t happen and I’m really happy it happened for him.”

The monkey is off Ovechkin’s back, it’s off the Capitals’ backs.

Ovechkin has long said this team only looks forward, not back. He’s sounded like a broken record throughout these playoffs. Asked whether he feels that this series win redeems the Capitals’ loss in Round 2 last year, he says, “I don’t want to talk about last year.” Why would he?

“Right now I can’t wait when it’s gonna be next game,” Ovechkin says, grinning, just before he walks away, wearing his two towels. “Get ready for Tampa.”

And at last, Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals will get ready for the Eastern Conference Final.

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