How the Capitals' many close calls added up to a big Stanley Cup victory

For the snakebitten expansion Golden Knights, a bunch of near-misses added up to one big defeat to the Washington Capitals

First thing’s first: The Las Vegas Golden Knights were close.

No Stanley Cup final series can be reduced to mere millimeters, but when so many small distances conspire to create such a large difference, it’s difficult not to notice them. The most obvious was The Save – Washington Capitals’ goaltender Braden Holtby’s sprawling stick stop against Alex Tuch with two minutes left in Game 2. The Capitals were up 3-2, but down 1-0 in the series. They hung on for the win.

The Save will endure as one of the Stanley Cup final’s most indelible moments.

And then the Capitals kept winning. They won Game 3, back home in DC, and won again in Game 4. Over the course of those two contests, the Golden Knights fired seven shots off Holtby’s goalposts, including one James Neal aimed at a wide open net that, somehow, only found a narrow strip of metal. A centimeter here, an inch or two there.

It was a great, seemingly endless, run. And they were close.

But on Thursday night in Las Vegas, the differences were ultimately unsurmountable for the Golden Knights. The Capitals, riding a 3-1 series advantage, finished the job with a 4-3 win.

After a tense and even first period, scoring opened up in the second. Jakub Vrana put the Caps up 1-0 just after the six-minute mark, but Nate Schmidt responded shortly after to equalize. Alexander Ovechkin put the Capitals up again less than a minute later, only to have David Perron score – controversially (there was a lot of pushing and shoving behind Caps’ goaltender Braden Holtby as the puck went in) – less than three minutes afterward. Reilly Smith put the Golden Knights up by one just 30 seconds before the period closed, thanks to a power play goal.

As the third period opened, momentum swung back and forth, until just before the 10-minute mark, Devante Smith-Pelly evened the scoresheet. Just prior to the 13-minute mark of the third, Lars Eller put home the eventual winner, scooping up the puck, and putting it home, after Golden Knights’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury let a shot from the point trickle through his legs.

Knights’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury lets a shot trickle through his legs.

Maybe we should have seen it coming. When the Capitals eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in round two, four games to two, for instance. When Alexander Ovechkin stared into the middle distance that night and declared, “It finally happened. We finally beat them,” like a man freed from possession. Maybe we should have all known then that it was this team, not the gilded men from Sin City, that was this season’s team of destiny.

Newer NHL fans will know the rivalry for its Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin matchup that began in 2004, since which time the Penguins have eliminated the Caps from Cup contention on three occasions (2009, 2016, and 2017). But that’s only the current iteration of things. For those who have been around a bit longer, it feels as though it has always been Pittsburgh. It was the Penguins in 1991 and 1992. It was the Penguins in 1994, 1995, and 1996. And it was the Penguins again in 2000 and 2001.

Vanquishing the Pens was big for the modern Capitals, surely, but downright cathartic for the franchise.

As for Ovechkin, what more can be written? He has overcome all these disappointments and, along with them, all the skepticism of his own abilities and salary. Ovechkin has accomplished what he was brought to Washington to do: he has hoisted the Stanley Cup in the name of the Capitals. And he hoisted the Conn Smythe in his own name. When the history of the Washington Capitals is written, little else will matter – little else probably should.

For, as much as the Caps’ win closes an exciting first chapter in the short history of the Golden Knights, it concludes a volume on NHL hockey in Washington DC – one that began, like Las Vegas’s, with expansion.

The story of Las Vegas is, as we know, about a team that found immediate success (season one record: 82-51-24-7). Washington’s is one about a team that struggled for nearly all of its first decade (season one record: 8-67-5), saved from relocation early on only by the concerted effort of devoted fans who, unlike new hockey converts in Vegas, might have understandably had little interest in the fate of the Caps.

Other expansion teams are still waiting for a Stanley Cup, including some who competed for the trophy this year – the Jets; the Blue Jackets; the Predators; the Wild; the Sharks. But few have waited quite so long. Few among those other teams have spent their many years vacillating between bottom-dwelling lows and division-leading highs with quite the frequency the Capitals have, swinging – sometimes season-to-season – between each. And few have been undone over and over again by the same franchise. Few have suffered quite the same indiginities.

Now, the Stanley Cup is in DC, and it can be held aloft on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery as a symbol of catharsis achieved, a tool to silence the doubters, a totem of the foes the Capitals have finally vanquished. The Stanley Cup in Washington closes a book. It allows some things to be forgotten – like all those years of just coming close.

For Washington has known for a while what Las Vegas has just learned: it is a game of millimeters, but it is a game of distances.


Colin Horgan

The GuardianTramp

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