It’s a funny thing. Year after year you’re told “this is your year,” and it never is, and then, finally, when no one thinks you matter anymore ... it might be your year.
The Washington Capitals are going to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years, after last night’s 4-0 Game 7 win over the Lightning that, quite frankly, could easily have seen them down a couple goals heading to the third instead of up by three.
Like, how does this physically not go in?
And do the Caps get the bounces like this in previous years?
Hockey makes no sense, but sometimes the nonsense evens out. After beating Pittsburgh, it felt like it’s anything goes for these Caps. So maybe there’s nothing particularly weird about them winning a seven-game series against a significantly better team? After all, that happened to Washington every year.
Braden Holtby, what’s going on?
“Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill, were better on paper, whatever. But this team, everyone knows their role, everyone can pitch in, everyone’s comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident in each other, don’t get down on each other. It’s a strong group. That’s extremely hard to come by.”
Okay, that’s an attempt, but it’s still mostly platitudes. Nicklas Backstrom, you try:
“Other years, we were better on paper. But this is the best I have ever seen us play. I wish I could explain it. I can’t.”
That’s closer to the mark. I’ll take a shot at an explanation, but it’s kind of boring:
In sports, we retrospectively manufacture our narratives from results. The Ovechkin/Backstrom–era Capitals have often been among the NHL’s best teams, but the best team doesn’t invariably win any given series, and the best team usually doesn’t win four series in a row. That so many Caps seasons have come to end in Game 7 heartbreak only serves to show that those matchups were close in talent. That so many Caps seasons ended at the hands of the Penguins was part luck, part playoff format, and yes, maybe part psychology. But past is prologue and the story’s forever being written; just because the Penguins always beat the Capitals didn’t mean they always would. Just because Washington never made it this far didn’t mean they never could.
And, plus, you know, these Caps are good. They won their division with 105 points. They beat the Blue Jackets and Penguins so convincingly as to have not needed much in the way of puck luck. Their first three wins over the East-best Lightning were utterly exhaustive demolitions, a team playing its perfect game three times in 11 days. And even Game 7, despite Tampa controlling the run of play for most of the second period, was a laugher on the scoresheet.
Holtby, benched to start the playoffs, is playing the best hockey of his playoff life. Alex Ovechkin, looking surprisingly grizzled for a 32-year-old, is playing his best postseason hockey. Together, they’re figuring something out.
“Emotions?” Ovechkin said. “We’re going to the Stanley Cup final. I think everybody happy, but we still have not finished. Not done yet, you know what I mean? I’m kind of emotional right now. It’s hard to explain.”
He struggled to collect his thoughts, smiling and shaking his head. Ovechkin then turned to goaltender Braden Holtby for help verbalizing the moment. Holtby smiled back at him. “You’re doing great, babe,” he told him.
“Finally, we get what we want,” Ovechkin continued.
As Backstrom said earlier, “It only took 11 years.”
After the Pittsburgh series, we talked about accomplishment, and what it means to celebrate (or not) incremental triumphs. Of course these players want to win the Stanley Cup, and will be disappointed if they do not, but equally as obvious is the joy that comes with taking each step. So, the stupid superstition about not touching the conference trophies never had a chance to be in play here. Ovechkin did not hesitate to grab that son of a bitch that’s eluded him for so many years...
...He carried it onto the plane...
...He carried it all the way back to Washington.
And now, with Vegas, some familiar faces for Washington await. It’s the team George McPhee built from scratch vs. the one whose core he constructed. It’s the Capitals against Marc-Andre Fleury, again. There are yet more demons to slay. But, storylines aside, this Stanley Cup Final matchup should be delightful, because it pairs two teams, two fanbases who are downright thrilled just to be here. And that’s not loser talk. That’s winner talk, because they’ve already won.