Say it once more with feeling—the Washington Capitals are the Stanley Cup champions.
If it feels like the powers that be will have to pry the Stanley Cup from Alex Ovechkin’s cold, dead hands a year from now, that’s because most of us felt like this day would never come.
While plenty of locals jumped on the bandwagon during the team’s magical postseason run, diehards know nothing has ever been guaranteed when it comes to this franchise.
In order to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in the team’s 44-year history, the Capitals had to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights—an expansion team that rewrote the standards for what a first-year franchise can accomplish.
The Golden Knights won 51 games in their inaugural campaign. The Caps didn’t collect their 51st franchise victory until halfway through their fourth season of existence. While Vegas raised the bar for future expansion teams, the Capitals began on the other side of the spectrum.
Washington won just eight of 80 games in 1974, and secured a single road victory that entire season. Eight years (and zero postseason appearances) later, things were so dire that the franchise launched a “Save the Caps” campaign just to keep them in town.
Even when things finally improved, the Caps were mostly known for getting to the playoffs, and then collapsing in spectacularly heartbreaking fashion. To this day, no other franchise in sports has blown more 3-games-to-1 leads than the Capitals.
That trend started long before Ovechkin ever came to D.C., but his early days in town did little to change that tired narrative. While the Great 8 added plenty of style and flash to a historically blue-collar franchise, squandering a 3–1 lead to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens in 2010 only re-enforced the belief that the Capitals were forever destined to remain “Choking Dogs.”
Prior to this improbable playoff run, Ovechkin was already considered one of the best professional athletes in D.C. sports history. As soon as Ovi ended Washington’s streak of futility after 91 seasons without a championship in the District’s four major sports, he officially cemented his status as a legend.
Watching Ovechkin hoist the Stanley Cup above his head was a thing of beauty. No longer was he a flawed and selfish player who cared more about personal accolades than any team goals. The weight of the world was no longer Ovechkin’s burden.
In its place, Ovechkin was free to carry hockey’s most sacred hardware—a 34.5-pound trophy that will feature his name in the not-too-distant future. But the Capitals’ captain isn’t the only individual who should feel vindicated right about now. No, this entire story is one of redemption for all the people involved.
For all of Nicklas Backstrom’s brilliance—with 799 points in 815 games—his 11 seasons as Washington’s top-line center have been largely overlooked and under-appreciated. While he’s averaged roughly a point per game for more than a decade, he’s only been named an All-Star once in his career and has been an afterthought when it comes to any sort of personal recognition.
The Capitals selected center Evgeny Kuznetsov with the 26th overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft. He remained in Russia until 2014 though, feeling he wasn’t ready to move halfway around the world and take on the challenges—on and off the ice—that come with an 82-game season. This decision made him an easy target, as people unfairly labeled him another enigmatic Russian head case.
John Carlson led all NHL defensemen in points during the 2017-18 season, but wasn’t named a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top defenseman.
T.J. Oshie is universally regarded as the best shootout specialist in all of hockey, which is great until you realize that playoff hockey doesn’t include shootouts.
Tom Wilson is vilified on a weekly basis because he’s a throwback to an era when helmets were optional and players finished their checks. That used to earn accolades back in the day. Now it garners a weekly meeting with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.
Braden Holtby is a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie, which means he’s been recognized as the best in the NHL at his chosen position. And yet, he wasn’t even Washington’s starting goaltender entering this postseason.
Brooks Orpik is the league’s highest paid sixth defenseman. Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana took turns alternating between the lineup and the coach’s doghouse. The New Jersey Devils bought out Devante Smith-Pelly’s contract after last season, essentially paying money to make him go away. Lars Eller, playing with his third team, came into this season having never scored more than 30 points. Christian Djoos is allegedly the name of a player also on this year’s team.
And let’s not forget that coach Barry Trotz’s four-year contract with the Caps expired as soon as the season ended. The 19-year veteran has guided Washington to victory two out of every three times they’ve taken the ice since he arrived in 2014, but that wasn’t good enough to earn him a contract extension.
The captain, the coach, and the franchise, in general, have each been regarded as underachievers. They’re good enough to get you to the playoffs, but never really a threat to do anything once they got there. Fair or not, that was their reputation.
Each of these guys, except for maybe Djoos, played a key role in bringing a championship to D.C.
The Capitals became the first team since 1991 to win the Stanley Cup after trailing in all four series, and they eliminated each of those four teams on the road, too. These were not the same old Caps I grew up watching.
That, more than anything, is what I appreciate most about the 2017-18 Washington Capitals. They vanquished a dark cloud that hovered over this downtrodden fanbase for more than four decades. While that was my cross to bear, the next generation of Caps fans—which includes my 6-year-old son—won’t be burdened with the same torment and heartbreak.
Names like Pat LaFontaine, Petr Nedved, and Jaroslav Halak caused old timers like me years of sleepless nights and emotional distress, but my son will never have to deal with another dimwitted Yinzer thinking he’s the second coming of Richard Pryor as he orders an “Ovechkin,” before hastily explaining, “You know … a White Russian with no cup,” and then laughing at his own tired joke. It’s the dawn of a new day in the District and I, for one, couldn’t be happier.
While injuries, suspensions, and countless other potential distractions came their way in the playoffs, the Capitals simply adapted and overcame adversity thanks to a “next man up” mentality. Everyone was a contributor. No one was a passenger.
Best of all, a different player rose to the occasion every night. This was never more apparent than in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final, when the Capitals—trailing after 40 minutes—battled back thanks to third-period goals by their third and fourth lines.
Throughout the postseason, all four lines contributed. On their championship clinching night, all four lines scored.
Call it redemption through resiliency. For a captain, a coach, and a franchise.