LAS VEGAS – When Alex Ovechkin finally got his hands on the Stanley Cup, he refused to let go.
The Washington Capitals captain had more than a decade of disappointment to think about this night and when it actually arrived he made it count. He joined longtime teammate and friend Nicklas Backstrom for his Cup twirl after taking one of his own. He delivered the trophy to owner Ted Leonsis and skated it to the spot where they took the team photo.
More than an hour after the horn sounded on a 4-3 victory that gave the Capitals their first ever championship, he was still on the ice at T-Mobile Arena cradling it like a baby.
"I think this moment, we waiting a long, long time," said Ovechkin. "It just was joy."
The Capitals’ series-clinching victory over the Vegas Golden Knights mirrored a season that saw them continually overcome hurdles. They twice blew leads in Game 5 and trailed heading into the third period.
Then they mounted a strong final push and got quick goals from Devante Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller – enduring a final seven minutes that felt more like 70 due to the enormous stakes and a bizarre clock malfunction.
"We never make it easy, do we?" said defenceman Matt Niskanen. "But, man, what a group of guys. What a performance from a lot of individuals. We played together and showed a lot of character, boy. That’s something we got criticized for in the past, I think. Boy we showed a ton of it this spring.
"Many many times we probably could have been down and out, but we just got better. I’m so happy for the guys. What a group of guys."
This was not the most talented Capitals team of the Ovechkin era. It arguably might not crack the Top 5.
Last spring the organization was left raw by another loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 2 – their second in as many years after winning the Presidents’ Trophy. According to general manager Brian MacLellan, the end-of-season player meetings included a lot of venting.
A salary-cap crunch forced him to shed veteran contributors like Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson and Karl Alzner, and fill those minutes from within. It was not a set of circumstances that left anybody believing they were finally going to get the job done.
"We started this year with a little baggage from the last two years – not being able to get by Pittsburgh – and I think it weighs on guys," said MacLellan. "But somehow we got through it."
They had to stare some familiar demons in the face to do it. They dropped the first two games of Round 1 to Columbus and needed to win Game 3 in overtime on the road to avoid going down 3-0. Eller scored that one and posited that it may even have been bigger than the Cup clincher he got here.
"If we go down 3-0 in that series, it’s a long way up," said Eller.
After dispatching Columbus, the Capitals had to go back through Pittsburgh. Then they fell behind in the Eastern Conference Final, winning Games 6 and 7 to knock out the Tampa Bay Lightning. Then they dropped Game 1 in Vegas.
Eller bought a PlayStation prior to the final series to keep his mind off the many potential distractions on the Vegas Strip. It helped him become the first Dane in history to win the Stanley Cup. He found a loose puck behind Marc-Andre Fleury at 12:23 of the third period in the deciding game – rewarding the folks who crammed into the movie theatre in his hometown for a viewing party that started at 2 a.m. local.
"I was glad I didn’t let them down," said Eller. "It would have been unbearable if we didn’t win this game. I’m so happy they got to see this. I hope they’re having a party back home."
The party was justifiably raging here. This was a Stanley Cup Final unlike any that came before it and offered the Capitals an opportunity to spill out into North America’s entertainment capital with the most beautiful trophy in sports.
The word head coach Barry Trotz used to describe their approach to being in Las Vegas during this series was "caving" it. He was asked if he intended to stick to that policy after the Cup was raised.
"Oh hell no. I’m going to go ‘Old School,"’ said Trotz. "That first one’s going to taste really like one of many."
Evgeny Kuznetsov, who led the playoffs in scoring with 32 points, said this is the first time in his life he was excited to see a season end. Backstrom and Ovechkin – teammates in Washington these last 11 years – wore a look of disbelief as they skated together with the trophy above their heads. Trotz was already looking forward to breaking open a 22-year-old bottle of champagne that former Portland Pirates owner Tom Ebright gave him after they lost the 1996 Calder Cup.
The first two thoughts that came to Leonsis when Ovechkin handed him the Stanley Cup were how hard it is to win and what he needs to do to get it again next year. He added: "Dreams come true."
"I didn’t sense once this whole run the team feeling concerned, panicked," said Leonsis. "They just really believed in one another because I think they suffered together. And when you have that scar tissue built up, you get hard, you get strong.
"The pain of last year was really really deep and I think they came back and said ‘Enough."’
Consider everything this organization has been through. They had the worst expansion season in NHL history, winning just eight games back in 1974-75. That’s 56 less than the Golden Knights managed during their magical first year in existence.
The current core of players had never been beyond the second round together. They’ve been criticized, written off and even scoffed at.
"I just think our guys got pissed off," said Trotz. "Enough is enough. They dusted themselves and they said ‘You know what? We don’t care what anybody thinks or what anybody says.’ There was some nasty and ugly things said to some pretty exceptional people in our room.
"I think we took it to heart and said ‘We’re going to dust ourselves off and stick it up everybody’s rear end.’ We did."
"It doesn’t come easy. It took years," added goaltender Braden Holtby. "Years of heartbreak. Years of breaking things down and trying again, breaking things down and trying again, and this group never gave up. And we finally did it."
That helps explain the immense emotion that spilled over after the victory. T.J. Oshie couldn’t stop crying, mentioning that his father, Tim, will remember this night despite the fact he has Alzheimer’s Disease.
Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP but pointed to his teammates before he accepted it. He spoke of feeling the presence of relatives who have passed on. Eller and his father, Olaf, were both bawling while discussing his long road to scoring the Cup-winning goal.
And a lot of happiness at seeing Ovechkin finally hoist the Stanley Cup. The goal-scoring supernova has taken more blame than most despite scoring nearly 200 more times than any of his peers since entering the league.
More than a decade’s worth of bad takes went out the window immediately after he grabbed that trophy. It was a complete release for the Great Eight.
"It’s even better [than I thought it would be]. It’s just like a dream," said Ovechkin. "It was a hard, long season. We fight through it. We worked so hard through all the years and we were together. It was a whole one team, stick with the system and it doesn’t matter what happened, even after the [second] period, we knew we just have to push it and get the result done.
Just like that, it’s over.
All of it.