Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
It took 43 seasons, but the Washington Capitals are finally Stanley Cup champions.
Washington defeated the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Thursday at T-Mobile Arena, winning the series 4-1 and earning the right to lift the fabled trophy for the first time in franchise history.
The championship required a dramatic comeback, as Devante Smith-Pelly’s third-period goal tied the game at three before Lars Eller scored the winner on a play that will forever be remembered in Washington sports lore.
Andre Burakovsky gathered a loose puck behind the net and found Brett Connolly, who fired a shot at Marc-Andre Fleury. The Vegas goaltender let it leak through his pads, and Eller was waiting behind him to score on the wide-open net.
NHL on NBC @NHLonNBCSportsLars Eller with the go-ahead for the @Capitals!
Watch the #StanleyCup Final here → https://t.co/gNYh1Fpnml https://t.co/Dw2QsscLhU
Smith-Pelly and Eller played the roles of final-period heroes, but only after Jakub Vrana and Alex Ovechkin found the back of the net during a memorable second period that featured five total goals.
It was appropriate Ovechkin scored in the title-clinching contest because the one thing missing from his illustrious resume was a Stanley Cup. It also capped off a historic postseason since his 15 goals set a franchise record for a single playoff run. The future Hall of Famer was emotional in the closing stretch, practically begging the clock to run out while his side was ahead.
Washington Capitals @CapitalsTHE MOMENT WE’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR! WE GOT THE CUP! #ALLCAPS #STANLEYCUP https://t.co/TEur4PnhMD
Ovechkin is the headline-maker given his status as a generational talent and the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoff MVP, but his wasn’t the only inspirational story on Washington’s side.
Goaltender Braden Holtby wasn’t even the starter during his team’s first two playoff games but rescued Washington in the first round and was brilliant throughout the rest of the postseason. While he allowed goals to Nate Schmidt, David Perron and Reilly Smith in the hectic second period, he stood firm during the final 20 minutes and allowed his team to battle back for the win.
It was more of the same for a goaltender who allowed more than three goals just twice these playoffs and tallied two shutouts while facing elimination in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Holtby not only won the Cup by stopping 28 of the 31 shots he faced (.903 save percentage), but he also outshone his counterpart, who is a legendary performer at this time of year.
While Fleury has three Cups to fall back on from his Pittsburgh Penguins tenure and knocked out the Capitals during last season’s playoffs, Wednesday’s performance was another forgettable one in a series of struggles. His save percentage in the prior four games was a lackluster .845 after posting .977, .935 and .938 in the first three rounds, respectively, and Washington’s relentless attack flummoxed him again.
Ovechkin even attempted to get under his skin before the game started:
NHL GIFs @NHLGIFsThis is already pretty intense. https://t.co/EeV2KjVVZ5
While Eller’s goal was the winner, Smith-Pelly’s was one for the highlight reels. He gathered a pass with his skate and buried a shot past Fleury as he was falling to the ice. It was hard to blame the goaltender for that one, although the final goal was a clear mistake.
NHL @NHLFor the third straight game, @smithpelly23.
We’re all tied up folks. #StanleyCup https://t.co/uKzli1GoRd
Both goaltenders would surely like to forget the second period, during which everything went off the rails with dramatic momentum shifts and five goals. Vrana started the scoring by going top shelf over Fleury’s glove, and Smith finished it for Vegas when Holtby was well out of position on a cross-net pass from Alex Tuch.
In between was a memorable stretch that saw Schmidt’s shot deflect off Matt Niskanen’s skate and five-hole Holtby, Ovechkin capitalize on a one-timer after drawing a penalty less than a minute later and a goaltender-interference review on Perron’s goal.
NHL on NBC @NHLonNBCSportsAlexander Ovechkin, ladies & gentlemen.
Watch the #StanleyCup Final here → https://t.co/gNYh1Fpnml https://t.co/s8RShPyAeP
The officials deemed it a good goal even though Perron made clear contact with Holtby because Christian Djoos shoved him into the goaltender.
NHL on NBC @NHLonNBCSportsThe @GoldenKnights even the score 2-2 in Vegas!
Watch the #StanleyCup Final here → https://t.co/gNYh1Fpnml https://t.co/KLGFfsYpqE
The second period was the last time the Golden Knights beat Holtby in their inaugural season, which saw them stun nearly everyone associated with the sport and reach the game’s biggest stage.
While Vegas didn’t lift the Cup, it turned in one of the most memorable first seasons in sports history and the team nearly achieved the seemingly impossible.
However, the Capitals finally reached the NHL mountaintop.
Read more HERE