Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

character win: capitals finally take a title


LAS VEGAS — There were so many nights this moment seemed out of reach, so many times they sat at their lockers staring into the offseason void after another devastating loss.

Alex Ovechkin skated over to the table, a broad, disbelieving, gap-toothed smile creasing his face. He shook hands with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, took the obligatory photo for posterity’s sake and, like an impatient child on Christmas morning, let out a primal scream, grabbed the Stanley Cup and lifted it above his head, finally, in triumph.  

Ovechkin kissed the Cup, took the trophy for a brief twirl down the ice at T-Mobile Arena and skated back toward Nicklas Backstrom, his teammate for 11 years, and handed it over.

“Fucking right!” Backstrom yelled.

The raw emotion was overwhelming. Eleven years of heartache for them, 43 seasons for the Capitals, erased in an instant of pure joy that later left players helpless to describe it.     

The franchise that once carried a garbage can around the ice to celebrate the end of a 37-game road losing streak, the franchise that perfected the blown 3-1 lead, that has lost quadruple overtime playoff games two different times and won three Presidents’ Trophies in the past nine seasons with nothing to show for them, is finally a champion.

Devante Smith-Pelly scored the game-tying goal at 9:52 of the third period and Lars Eller followed 2:31 later with the go-ahead goal that held up as a winner. They, too, are champions after a 4-3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Those are the particulars, the details of how the game itself was won. But it was the culmination of those 43 seasons, all the near-misses and the should-have-beens kicked to the curb at long last. There will be a parade and rings and their names will be on the Cup, which will visit them all at a place of their choosing this summer.

“I think this moment, we waiting a long, long time,” Ovechkin said. “Since day one, [owner] Ted [Leonsis], I was at that house. We just kind of met the family. We were swimming in the pool. He told me, like, one day we’re going to win it. It was the first year [2005]. I don’t even know what the team is.”

Washington had one really good team after another fall short from the early 1980s through the Ovechkin era. The great tragedy about the Capitals wasn’t that they always lost. It was that they almost won. They were Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill knowing at some point it was coming back down on them and they’d have to start again.

Five times they have blown 3-1 series leads. That’s only happened 28 times in NHL history. They own 18 percent of those collapses. Five times they have been eliminated in a Game 7 on home ice during Ovechkin’s 13-year career alone. No wonder he screamed so loud and long.

He’d earned it, paid for it with a decade of frustration, left a piece of himself behind in locker rooms in Pittsburgh and New York and Tampa Bay and, yes, Washington, where he could barely peel off his uniform sometimes after playoff failures that all blended together.     

“To me, they changed all the narratives. They checked off every box,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “Look at every series. We were down in every series, come back in every one. It was probably fitting we were down in this game and had to come back and win.”

Since 1980 only three NHL teams have more wins than Washington (1,464) – the Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers. The Capitals have made the Stanley Cup playoffs 28 times in 35 years. They have more wins than any team in the NHL since 2007-08 (507) – except for the Pittsburgh Penguins (514). Of course. Their history is littered with spectacular flameouts, three generations’ worth. But those failures define the franchise no more.

“It doesn’t come easy. It took years,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “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.”

The spoilers’ names resound through history: Pat LaFontaine and the Easter Epic; Jaroslav Halak and Petr Nedved; Derek Stepan and Martin St. Louis; Henrik Lundqvist and always, always Mario Lemieux.

Listen hard and you can still hear the sad cadence of longtime radio play-by-play broadcaster Ron Weber, who had to describe the expansion Caps of 1974-75, the worst team in NHL history, or talk fans through another painful playoff ending. There were so many of them even in those days, so many times the Capitals had the look of a championship team only to sabotage themselves.

“We got our fair share of breaks this time – usually they were stacked the other way,” said team president Dick Patrick, who has been with the organization for 36 years dating back to the “Save the Caps” campaign run by original owner Abe Pollin in 1982 to keep the team in the District.

Down 2-0 in the first round to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Cam Atkinson hit the post in overtime of Game 3. Eller took advantage of that break and scored the winner in double overtime and Washington was back in the series. It finished the playoffs 16-6 after digging that early hole.

“We never make it easy, do we? But, man what a group of guys and what a performance from a lot of individuals,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We played together, showed a lot of character, boy. You know, that’s something we got criticized for in the past, I think. We showed a ton of it this spring.”

They celebrated for an hour on the ice with a few thousand Capitals fans in the building down at ice level now, cheering “Let’s Go Caps!” and chanting for Smith-Pelly — “D-S-P!” — and Holtby and Ovechkin over and over until their voices grew hoarse.

At one point Ovechkin saw an old teammate on the ice and called over: “Olaf! Olaf!”

Olie Kolzig, the goalie the only other time the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup Final, saw Ovechkin and smiled. Kolzig was the voice in the locker room early in Ovechkin’s career, a man imposing enough to call out the young superstar when he was out of line. They were 20 feet apart with a mob in between them and so they laughed and did simultaneous fist pumps.

“I’m just so proud of what they’ve done,” Kolzig said. “I know how hard it is to get here. I know how hard it is to win once you do.”

T.J. Oshie, whose relentless play helped fuel Washington’s playoff comeback, spoke of his father, Tim, who is fighting Alzheimer’s Disease. He doesn’t remember too well these days, but he was in the arena Thursday, walking unsteadily on the ice with a cane. Oshie’s voice broke as he described his father.

“What a great human being, what a great man, what a great father,” Oshie said. “Some things slip his memory these days, but this one is going to be seared in there. I don’t think any disease is going to take this one away from him.”

Oshie said he began sobbing on the bench even before the clock ran out. The tears weren’t done yet.

“I didn’t know I was such a baby,” Oshie joked.

He was far more collected when he found his dad later and the two men took a picture together with the Stanley Cup.

All around the rink, players, coaches and staff shared the moment with their families. Kids crashed to the ice. Jay Beagle was called away to care for his young son, who had taken a hard fall and was just generally ready for bed.  

“I can’t believe this happened,” one assistant coach said to his wife.

Video coordinator Brett Leonhardt, who once worked for the team web site and memorably filled in as an emergency goalie during a 2008 game when a minor-league recall couldn’t make it in time, caught up with reporters whom he’s known for a decade. You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

Finally, media obligations done and ready to move on, Ovechkin grabbed the Cup and skated toward the bench. He briefly spoke with Backstrom and they hatched a plan to get every player into the locker room. Ovechkin would carry the Cup in and the real party would begin.

Like a disgruntled parent, the captain yelled at teammates to stop their conversations and get in the locker room. Rookie Nathan Walker, who should have a day with the Cup in his native Australia sometime this summer, skated past as instructed. Brett Connolly took a little more prodding. Finally content all were in place, Ovechkin lifted the Cup one last time, kissed it and turned to the assemblage.

“Thank you, Vegas!” Ovechkin yelled.

Then he disappeared down the tunnel toward his waiting teammates, their long work finally done.

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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