A Look at the 2017-18 Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals get a 44-year old monkey off their back, while Alex Oveckhin's 13-year itch is cured
The Washington Capitals entered the 2017-18 season as one of the most hard luck teams in the NHL, and it all started with their historically hideous inaugural season. Eight wins. 21 points. That's how the 1974-75 season went for the debuting Capitals. It would take them nine seasons to finally reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time, and they needed Year 10 to finally win a series. The Caps' first trip to the Final Four didn't come until the 1989-90 season, and it was in the 1997-98 season that the Capitals finally reached the Stanley Cup Final, but they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
The Caps would have years of playoff woes following their first Stanley Cup Final appearance, but the 2005 Draft would see a golden goose end up in their lap.
Enter Alex Ovechkin. What can I say about Ovechkin that I haven't already said, or hasn't already been said by talking heads? I've heard it all. I've definitely seen it. However, at that time, there's one thing I haven't seen: a Cup. Even worse, the man known as the "Great Eight" hadn't even reached the Conference Finals, let alone the Cup Final. There he was, perhaps the greatest goal scorer in decades, yet even with him, the Capitals couldn't really get to the promised land. In 12 years, the Ovi-led Caps had two dead ends: the second round and the Sidney Crosby-led Pittsburgh Penguins. Even winning the Presidents' Trophy didn't help them. In fact, entering the 2017-18 season, the Caps were coming off back-to-back Elite Eight losses to the Penguins, and in each season, they won the Presidents' Trophy.
In 12 seasons, Ovechkin scored 558 career goals, and he would add 49 in the 2017-18 season, moving him past the 600-goal plateau. His main cohorts in offense were (and still are) Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, and while Ovechkin's 87 points led the team, Kuznetsov was right behind him with 83 of his own (27 G/56 A), while Backstrom had 71 points (21 G/50 A). John Carlson led Washington blueliners with 68 points (15 G/53 A), and regarding other forwards, they had clutch scoring from TJ Oshie and Lars Eller (remember that name).
In net, the Capitals had Braden Holtby at the helm, and he was two seasons removed from a campaign that saw him win 48 games and capture the Vezina Trophy. In 2017-18, Holtby went 34-16-4 with a 2.99 GAA and a .907 SV%, but didn't have a shutout. The efforts of Holtby and backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer led to the Capitals winning the Metropolitan Division for the third straight season, going 49-26-7 and racking up 105 points--finishing five points ahead of the Penguins. Unlike each of the previous two seasons, the Caps did not win the Presidents' Trophy; it went to the Nashville Predators that year.
The Metropolitan Semifinals were not easy for the Caps; despite facing the Columbus Blue Jackets in that series, the Caps actually lost the first two games and fell behind 2-0. However, Washington ended up winning the next four games to advance, but as I said before, the second round was one of their two dead ends. Even worse, they had to run into their other one: the back-to-back defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Oh boy. The Penguins' ownership of the Caps didn't start in the Crosby/Ovechkin era. It goes back farther than that; it just happened to escalate since those two superstars became part of this rivalry. I, as a fan who had seen Crosby get past Ovechkin quite a bit--including back-to-back years, didn't expect the third meeting in a row to be the charm. Even when the Caps led 3-2 in the series, I figured Pittsburgh would take the next two and finish it.
And then, overtime happened in Game Six.
I will never forget that overtime. I watched as Evgeny Kuznetsov broke away with the puck. I watched as Evgeny Kuznetsov shot the puck. I watched as the puck actually went in the net. And I sat silently with my mouth open. The Washington Capitals won Game Six in overtime. They defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins. They eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins. Alex Ovechkin was going to the Eastern Conference Final. I'm serious, it took me hours for me to get used to that. I knew (and still know) that hockey has way more variables than constants, but Pittsburgh owning Washington was one constant I was enjoying. That's over. So the Capitals were in the Final Four for the first time in 20 years, and they faced the Tampa Bay Lightning in a thrilling seven-game series that saw the Caps shut down the Bolts in Games Six and Seven.
The Caps reached the Cup Final for the first time since 1998, and their opponents were the Vegas Golden Knights, who were in their very first season. That was one of the biggest stories of the 2017-18 season; the debut of the Vegas Golden Knights, who actually started their season just days after the horrible shooting in Vegas. The entire team and their home city had so many rallying around them after that terrible tragedy, and it made what the Knights did so extraordinary. Because they basically won the jackpot in the expansion draft, the Knights reached the playoffs as champions of the Pacific Division, and in their run, they swept the Los Angeles Kings in the opening round, defeated the San Jose Sharks in the Pacific Final, and won a five-game West Final over the Winnipeg Jets.
The Cup Final between the Capitals and the Golden Knights marked the first Final between teams looking to win their first Cup since 2007 (Ducks/Senators). In addition, neither team won a Cup Final game, though Vegas had the excuse of playing their very first season; the Caps were 0-4. It would be 0-5 after Game One, as the Caps lost Game One to the Golden Knights. Game Two would put the Capitals off the schnide as far as Cup Final games won, and they would take Games Three and Four at home to move one win away. Game Five saw the Caps down 3-2 in the third, but Devante Smith-Pelly managed to tie the game in that final frame, and Lars Eller would give them a 4-3 lead. It would remain that way, and when the whistle blew with 0.6 left, I remember seeing that elation from Ovechkin, as he was just under a second away from winning the Cup. Those final ticks went off, and the Capitals celebrated in Vegas.
It was done. On Thursday evening, June 7, 2018, Alex Ovechkin hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head for the first time. The Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 44-year history, and for Ovi, a 13-year monkey was off his back. As great as Ovechkin was, he faced being an absolute playoff failure entering that season, but all of that went away on that Thursday evening. Ovechkin also captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as well; his 27 points were second on the team, but 15 of them were goals. Kuznetsov led the way with 32 points, 12 of them were goals, including the one that sent the Caps to the East Final. Backstrom, the second player to hoist the Cup, had 23 points (5 G/18 A). Eller had 18 points, seven of them were goals, but his last one was the Cup clincher.
Two other notable players: first, Brooks Orpik had been on both sides of the Crosby/Ovechkin rivalry; becoming the only player to win Cups with both teams. And second, Andre Burakovsky, who won the first of two Stanley Cups in his career; his second came in 2022 with the Colorado Avalanche, and he plagued the Lightning in that run as well. This was an amazing Cup run; the Capitals finally got over the hump, and Alex Ovechkin finally emerged from a grueling run as a champion. Unfortunately for the Capitals, they have yet to win a playoff series since reaching the top of the proverbial heap, but at least the Caps are off the schnide when it comes to capturing the greatest prize in professional sports.
Great sport writing as usual!! :)