TAMPA, Fla. — Alex Ovechkin is talking, but he’s basically speechless, sitting here with an Eastern Conference champions t-shirt on his back and an Eastern Conference champions hat on his head, a gap-toothed smile plastered on his bearded face.
“Just ask Holts,” Ovechkin says, calling on the guy who just recorded a shutout in the biggest game of either of their lives to try to capture this moment, because he really can’t.
“This kind of emotion,” Ovechkin says, still trying, “it’s hard to explain what I’m feeling.”
Well, no kidding. Ovechkin, Braden Holtby and the Washington Capitals have finally done it. They have earned a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, accomplished Wednesday on a quiet night in Tampa, a 4-0 resounding Game 7 victory that saw them lead for all but 62 seconds of a 60-minute Eastern Conference Final finale.
And how fitting that it’s Ovechkin who scored on the Capitals’ first shot of this game, just 1:02 in, which stands as the winner to carry this franchise to its first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years, and only its second in team history.
“I saw it all,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said, of Game 7. “I saw it first shift. Ovi’s been on a mission, Kuzi [Evgeny Kuznetsov], they stepped up big time.”
And if you want to know what this all means to the Capitals captain, you don’t need Ovechkin to describe his emotion. Just watch him, after Andre Burakovsky made it 3-0, hop up and down on the bench and then throw out his arms and hug as many of his teammates as he could. He basically turned the bench into a hug train, and that was late in the second period, with still the third to go.
When Burakovsky skated by the bench after beating Andrei Vasilevskiy five-hole, with about four minutes to go in the second — his second goal of the game, no less — Ovechkin pointed at his teammate and yelled: “Yeah, baby!”
He said some other things, too.
“He said ‘[expletive] right.’ That’s just his word,” Burakovsky said. “He said, ‘Stick with it, you’re playing good.’ And then he said ‘keep your shifts down a little bit,’ so he was joking a little bit too.”
Hey, why not. There was more than a period to play, still, but the Capitals were in control of this Game 7, with a three-goal lead in a deflated and quiet Amalie Arena that had been earlier bringing the thunder, but was reduced to muted ‘Let’s go Lightning!’ cheers, to sounds of sadness.
And while this game wasn’t what you’d call close, it was hardly without good old-fashioned Game 7 drama. Kuznetsov had his jersey ripped off by Lightning defenceman Braydon Coburn in the first period. Tom Wilson then defended his linemate by brawling with Cobourn at centre ice, leaving the Capitals winger with bloody and painful-looking knuckles.
Wilson will have five days before the Final starts against Vegas, to heal those knuckles up.
And it was Wilson who spurred the first goal, causing a turnover, then dishing the puck to Kuznetsov, who put a cross-ice pass right in Ovechkin’s wheel-house. Ovechkin one-timed it, a real knuckleball that fluttered over and off of Vasilevskiy’s blocker. Ovechkin yelled “Yeah!” for a really long time, looked at the sad crowd and pumped a fist, and it was 1-0, Capitals.
“I think tonight we had a very good start,” Ovechkin said. “First goal was very important and after that you can see we had all the momentum on our side and Holts was unstoppable today, our goalie was something special. Everybody was all in, everybody was sacrificing their bodies. That’s all it takes, little details, little things. Give emotionally.”
While it was 1-0 Capitals through one, it’s a wonder how the Lightning didn’t score in the second. The period was all Tampa Bay early on, and Washington needed nearly five minutes to register its first shot, on an Ovechkin backhand.
“They had some pucks behind us but I kept saying, the hockey gods even things out for you,” said Trotz, who’s a big believer in those hockey dieties. “There was a lot of will.”
And while the Lightning were buzzing in the second, it was the Capitals who struck about half way in, when Burakovsky jumped on a puck that Lightning defenceman Dan Girardi was trying to handle off his chest.
“I was just trying to not close my hand on it and take a penalty,” Girardi explained. “It just trickled away from me, couldn’t get it. it’s a tough bounce.”
The 23-year-old Burakovsky picked up that tough bounce and he put it over Vasilevskiy’s far pad, for his first of these playoffs. After missing time due to injury, the Austrian says it felt even sweeter to get back and contribute.
“I meant a lot for the team,” he said. “I’ve been out for a while a little bit, with the injury. It hasn’t been easy for me. It’s been pretty hard. I was working really hard to get back as fast as possible. It feels really good to help the team to get a win, and be a part of this team.”
Tampa Bay continued to get its chances in the second, including on an Alex Killorn breakaway, but Holtby was solid. And then Burakovsky struck yet again, beating Vailevskiy five-hole on a breakaway, seemingly crushing all hope in Amalie Arena.
Fans booed the Lightning as they left the ice through two periods, which saw Tampa Bay with the 22-15 edge in shots, but nothing to show for it.
“You can’t expect to win at this time of the year if you can’t score,” said Lightning captain, Steven Stamkos. “We have to give them some credit, that’s a very good team over there, their goaltender played extremely well the last two games and we probably felt how they felt for a couple of those games when Vasy stole some from them.”
Holtby recorded his second straight shutout, with 29 saves in all, very few of which he had to make in the third. Tampa came out flat, and didn’t register a shot until past the mid-way point.
While this isn’t the most skilled team he’s been a part of, Holtby says there’s something a little different about this version of the Capitals.
“I think our group here really understands what it really means to be a team and how to win. Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill, we’re better on paper, whatever but this team, everyone knows their role,” Holtby said. “I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident and we’re confident in each other. Don’t get down on each other. It’s stronger, and so it’s extremely hard to come by and it’s something we’re going to need to have moving forward.”
The team is easier to describe, certainly, than the moment.
But these Capitals, these long-defeated in the playoffs Capitals, they sure tried to capture what it all means.
“Playoffs are fun,” Trotz said. “They’re not not fun.”
“I still can’t believe it,” said Nicklas Backstrom, who potted the empty-netter. “We worked so hard for this to be able to be in the finals and all it took was 11 years, but now we’re there.”
All it took was 11 years, indeed.
Ovechkin pretty well nailed it, sort of.
“We’re going to the Stanley Cup Final,” he said, flashing that gap-toothed smile. “I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished — you know what I mean.
“I don’t know, I’m emotional right now.”