Photo by Brian McNally for The Sports Capitol

Capitals advance to conference finals with ot win over Penguins


PITTSBURGH — The ghosts arrive like unwanted guests every summer.

They linger in an empty rink in Sweden. They float through the bustling streets of Moscow. They hover above a windswept farm in Alberta.

For a decade now, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Jay Beagle and the Washington Capitals – like a generation of players before them – have spent their offseason at home haunted by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Three times they have endured a bitter handshake line. Three times they have watched from afar as the Penguins celebrated a Stanley Cup. Three times seasons of hope have been reduced to ash, their promise unfulfilled. 

Nothing can ever totally erase those painful losses to Pittsburgh in 2009, 2016 and 2017. They have left behind scars that last. But on Monday night at PPG Paints Arena, in the city of their torment, the Capitals finally had their day.

Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the overtime winner. The Capitals, who beat the Penguins 2-1, advanced to the Eastern Conference final for the first time in 20 years.

“Thank God this happened,” an ebullient Ovechkin said.

It has been a long wait. And it wasn’t just the Penguins that kept Washington from the conference finals. The Capitals blew a 3-1 lead in 2015 to the New York Rangers. They lost a Game 7 in 2012 to New York, too. In 2010 they won the Presidents’ Trophy and lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens. Alex Semin sat sobbing on a washing machine in the trainers’ room that night. The pain is real and unrelenting. But is it all-consuming?      

“No…I mean…I don’t know,” Beagle said. “That’s a good question. To me, it’s great, obviously. It’s awesome. But we’re halfway there. The goal isn’t to get past the second round. The goal is the Stanley Cup. That’s always been the goal since we’ve been here.”

Backstrom, ironically, wasn’t on the ice at all as his teammates celebrated when Kuznetsov beat Penguins goalie Matt Murray on the breakaway. He is hurt. His left hand bandaged following a blocked shot in Game 5 on Saturday.

After the game he was wearing a suit and talking with fellow Swede Patric Hornqvist outside the locker room. Just down the hall was Tom Wilson, also in a suit and tie, serving the final game of his three-game suspension for an illegal check to the head in Game 3. They did this without injured forward Andre Burakovsky, too. They did this shorthanded. 

Even Capitals coach Barry Trotz felt a kinship with his players. For 15 seasons in Nashville he turned an undermanned Predators team into a perennial playoff contender. They were never good enough to get past the second round, though, and that reputation was only cemented when Trotz came to Washington, won three Metropolitan Division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies and, again, was tripped three years in a row in the second round. Reputations aren’t forged through “close”. You have to win to get full credit.

“Yes, absolutely, because I’ve been at this for a while and it’s so hard to move forward sometimes,” Trotz said. “It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns, and he’s a great player in this league….I knew the frustration because you’re so close and you just can’t get it, and you just gotta stay with it. There is a kinship there, there’s no question. For that whole group of Backstrom and Ovi, myself — everybody, pushing and pushing.”

Ovechkin has taken his licks over the years. He was Captain Couldn’t, the man who put up massive regular-season numbers year after year, but whose team always fell short. In 109 career playoff games, Ovechkin has 54 goals and 51 assists (105 points). By all accounts, he has done everything he could to push Washington to this point, but it was never going to be good enough.

“Yeah. And has always been good in playoffs, too,” Beagle said. “Takes a little bit of a beating every time. But has always been good in playoffs, has always been our rock, our captain. Has played unreal this playoffs and this series and we look for that going forward.”

And now, Ovechkin, Backstrom, Beagle – even owner Ted Leonsis – are in the Eastern Conference finals, eight wins away from a Stanley Cup. This is only the third time they’ve reached this stage and they will be underdogs to the formidable Lightning, especially if Backstrom is out for any length of time.

But there is time later to think about all of that. For one night, at least, the Capitals could celebrate together on the home ice of their nemesis. For once, Penguins fans filed out of the arena solemnly — after cheering their team for its two Stanley Cups.

Washington shook off two brutal playoff losses to the Penguins in a row, the departure of four key teammates (Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt, Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson) and a rough start to the 2017-18 season. There was no sad organ music at Capital One Arena this time, no “A Hard Day’s Night” or “Three Little Birds” playing the fans out into the offseason. It is May and the Capitals still have games to play and their championship dreams live yet. It’s all so new to this group and the three stalwarts who have been through it all.    

“It feels great,” Ovechkin said. “I’ve never been in this position before and I’m looking forward.”

Brian McNally is a senior staff writer and co-founder of The Sports Capitol. He is also an award-winning multi-media journalist, who has covered the Redskins, Capitals and Nationals for the Washington Examiner, Washington Times and 106.7 The Fan and major events like the Super Bowl, NCAA basketball tournament, Stanley Cup playoffs, NBA playoffs, NFL Combine and NFL Draft.

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