Welcome to Four Down Territory! This is a space where I’ll write about four things in professional sports every Saturday. Whether it’s the four greatest moments or the four worst blunders or anything in between, the only rule is that I’ll discuss four things. In my second installment, I’ll be outlining my favorite Washington Capitals moment from each round of last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. As you might’ve gathered, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Capitals fan, and this run to the Cup meant so much to me as well as the DC metro area. A day after winning the Cup, we had graduation rehearsal at school, and I wore my Caps shirt to flex on my math teacher, who’s also a huge Caps fan. As it turned out, he was wearing the same shirt as me. We’d suffered through a decade of heartbreak and to finally break through was a mountaintop experience. I want to relive those moments by writing here today. Hope you enjoy!
Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Hope Swinging in Our Favor
Ho-hum. Another year, another playoff disappointment it was going to be. This year, it was going to happen in the first round. The Capitals had lost a number of important pieces in the offseason, and experts were surprised that they even made it into the playoffs. As usual, they had regular-season success, winning the Metropolitan Division. Their first round draw was the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team they were expected to beat handily. Capitals fans know better than that. The first two games played out just the way that fans expected: heartbreaking overtime losses. Game 2 stands out as a caricature of every Capitals playoff loss: a godlike performance by the opposing goaltender (in this case, Sergei Bobrovsky made 54 saves on 58 shots), and blowing a two-goal lead to lose in overtime.
Washington travelled to Columbus down 2-0 in the series. We all thought that the championship window had been closed shut after last year’s disappointment (more on that later), and this was simply proof of the team’s decline. In game 3, the Capitals struck first once more, and once again the game went into overtime. For the first time in the series, one overtime wasn’t enough. The Capitals were able to break out in an odd man rush halfway through the second overtime, and Brett Connolly fired a shot which Bobrovsky turned aside. He didn’t clean up the rebound, though, and what happened next changed the fortunes of the Capitals playoff run. For a decade, all the bounces had gone against the Capitals. Luck was never on their side until this moment. Lars Eller got a strange bounce as he crashed the net, and somehow the puck ended up in the goal. With that bounce, I thought this year would be different, and karma might finally turn our way. Spoiler alert: it did.
Eastern Conference Semifinals: The Demons Have Been Exorcised
Hey, did you know that I hate the Pittsburgh Penguins? In today’s NHL, Capitals vs. Penguins is one of the best modern rivalries, with star power all around. But in the playoffs, the rivalry was one-sided. Going into the series, Pittsburgh had taken 9 out of 10 playoff series from the Caps, including three in the Ovechkin era. All three losses were gut-wrenching. In 2009, the Caps took a 2-0 series lead before losing in Game 7 at home. In 2016, the Caps won the President’s Trophy, yet they fell to Pittsburgh in six games. Nick Bonino’s double overtime game-winner is a goal that haunts me to this day, and I still can’t properly enjoy Carl Hagelin’s contributions to the Capitals. In 2017, the Capitals came back from a 3-1 series deficit to force Game 7 at home, and they were shut out. That loss was devastating, as I believed our championship window was slammed shut by Marc-Andre Fleury. In this series, Game 1 began just like Groundhog Day. The Capitals took a 2-0 lead early in the third period, and naturally, they blew it. Pittsburgh scored three goals within five minutes, and went on to win Game 1. Though the Caps recovered for Game 2, the feeling going to Pittsburgh was “here we go again”. From there, the series changed. Alex Ovechkin and Jakub Vrana scored clutch game-winning goals in Games 3 and 5, giving the Capitals a 3-2 series lead going into Game 6.
This year, it was different. The Capitals had never been able to eliminate Pittsburgh before Game 7 in the previous three series. Little-known winger Alex Chiasson drew first blood for the Capitals following a great hustle play from even lesser-known winger Nathan Walker. Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang responded with a goal of his own, and eventually the contest went to overtime. You know what happens from my last article: Kuhnhackl hits the post, Kuznetsov scores, demons exorcised. For an entire region, this was the top moment in the playoffs. We finally defeated our hated rivals and made Washington, D.C. slightly less laughable as a sports city. My math teacher used to have a number up on the board during playoff season, and it was the number of wins that the Capitals needed to get to the Cup. Seeing the 9 turn into an 8 was a top moment of the run for me.
Eastern Conference Finals: Smith-Pelly! 2-0!
I remember checking ticket listings for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Stubhub the day of the game during my 5th period government class. I thought to myself, $66! What a steal! Then, I realized the reason why. This was to be a funeral game. After the Capitals took a 2-0 series lead with dominant play, the Tampa Bay Lightning roared back, winning the next three games. We were going to be the first team to come back from a 2-0 deficit only to blow one in the same playoffs. As I drove home, I kept telling myself that no matter what, it was a good season. People didn’t expect us to even make the playoffs, let alone advance past the second round for the first time in twenty years. It was a successful season, win or lose.
Then, the game began. As usual, Capital One Arena was in a frenzy, and behind the roar of the home crowd, Washington dominated play and went back to their form in Games 1 and 2. Late in the first period, T.J. Oshie scored from the slot on the power play to put the home team out in front. The score remained that way as the Caps controlled the puck and Braden Holtby made timely saves. Tampa sustained some pressure midway through the third period and that’s where the play began. Devante Smith-Pelly cleared the zone and it looked to be icing, but Chandler Stephenson hustled down the ice, matching Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburn step for step. Icing was washed out, Coburn turned the puck over to Jay Beagle, who played it to Stephenson below the goal line. With a backhand flick of the wrist, Stephenson got the puck to Smith-Pelly, who bulldozed his way into a scoring area and put it home to put Washington up by 2. I’ve never heard the arena louder on TV than in that moment. It was glorious to see the camera focus in on Smith-Pelly’s celebration, and then pan around the entire arena to a sea of red. He’d fought so hard, making timely goals throughout the playoffs and fighting racial slurs from opposing fans all season, and to see Smith-Pelly celebrated by an entire region was a beautiful thing.
I should’ve pulled the trigger on those tickets.
Stanley Cup Finals: Oh! It didn’t go!
Hockey reached a fever pitch in DC once the Final rolled around. Viewing parties were literally everywhere in sight, including Capital One Arena. When the Caps played road games, the arena opened up for people to watch the game on the jumbotron, and 7th Street, 6th Street, F Street, and G Street were all closed for a block so people could watch the big screens outside of the stadium. I’ll never forget rushing from a job interview to go to the viewing party for Game 5. I thought we had to get to the arena as early as possible despite the 8:00 PM puck drop, so I ran onto the Metro and got there at 3:00. To my surprise, most of my friends were already there, but the stadium was largely empty. We took in the Mystics game for a few hours, and spent the rest of our time just hanging out as the stadium filled.
That’s too much of a distraction. This article is about Game 2. Of all the spectacular moments, in all the spectacular games in Capitals history, I had never seen anything like what I was about to experience. To set the stage, the Caps were coming off a controversial Game 1. With Washington up 4-3 near the start of the third period, Vegas forward Ryan Reaves cross-checked defenseman John Carlson, separating him from the puck. He scored the equalizer, and the Knights went on to win 6-4. We already felt like the officiating was questionable, but it was going to hurt so much more because we’d finally made it this far. Game 2 loomed in Vegas, and the prospect of going down 2-0 would be difficult to deal with. Game 1 proved that the Knights had speed, and the Capitals would have to counterpunch with power and physicality. Fortunately, we had that in spades. Of all people, rugged defenseman Brooks Orpik had a goal in Game 2, putting us up by 2 in the second period. Vegas struck back late in the second period, setting the scene for a frantic third period of play. Early in the period, the Capitals repelled a push from Vegas, killing a 5 on 3 power play. From that moment, there was end to end action, and Vegas’ speed gave them the advantage. Though they were getting quality chances and time in the offensive zone, Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby stood tall. His biggest challenge would come with just over 2 minutes remaining in regulation time. After Vegas dumped the puck into the corner, it took a strange bounce and went directly to the waiting stick of Cody Eakin. Instead of the standard dump-and-chase, Eakin and linemate Alex Tuch were in on net with an odd-man rush. Eakin fired a pass to Tuch with a gaping net. As Tuch fired the shot, he couldn’t get the proper elevation on it, and Holtby saved the puck by trapping it under his stick. It didn’t go. The scenes afterwards were impactful: a crowd cheering, thinking that they had scored the equalizer, only to be let down by Holtby’s miraculous play. Alex Ovechkin was beside himself, hands over his head, staring at the video board and hoping it was real. Yet another bounce had gone the Capitals way, and it was fitting for a team of destiny. We didn’t lose a game after that.
366 days ago, we won the Stanley Cup. 364 days ago, we graduated high school. What a wonderful weekend.