No path to the Cup is smooth, and the Capitals certainly had their work cut out for them to bring home their first championship in franchise history. Along the way, they faced four opponents in four series that each had their own obstacles and turning points. This week, we’ll be taking a look at each series - and the key moment in each en route to the Stanley Cup.
There were 44 minutes early on in these playoffs in which the Caps persevered in such a manner that, had they not, we might be thinking this morning of how the front office might be considering blowing up the team.
This brings us to a pet theory of ours, that any Stanley Cup champion will, more often than not, face a dark moment of the soul early on in their quest. There is a moment or a sequence or a call that they will have to stare down and overcome for them to march forward toward that Cup.
For the Capitals, it came early in the playoffs - a sequence that started with barely four minutes gone in the third period of Game 3 in their first-round matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Caps, Metropolitan Division champs, a team that finished the season eight points ahead of the fourth-place Blue Jackets, dropped Games 1 and 2 to Columbus at Capital One Arena (both in overtime), not only losing home ice advantage, but putting themselves in the unenviable position of once more making an early exit from the postseason.
However, after a scoreless first period in Game 3 at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, the Caps broke on top on a goal by Tom Wilson in the sixth minute of the second period. Columbus tied the game mid-way through the period, but the Caps regained the lead less than three minutes later on a John Carlson power play goal.
As the third period began, the question for the Caps was, could they hang on to a lead for the last 20 minutes? They could not. Four minutes into the period, Alex Ovechkin was along the right wing wall. He tried to thread a pass all the way across to Dmitry Orlov circling up toward the blue line. The pass clicked off the heel of Orlov’s stick, hit the wall behind him, and then caromed out toward the blue line. Orlov’s stick was an inch or two too short to keep the puck from skittering away and into the clutches of Cam Atkinson, who tapped it to Artemi Panarin exiting the zone. The two played back-and-forth with the puck down the ice with only Carlson back for Washington. Carlson could not prevent one last pass from being made from Atkinson to Panarin, whose one-timer hit goalie Braden Holtby’s skate and settled into the back of the net to tie the game.
Here, the Caps’ dark night of the soul in the 2018 playoffs began. They just allowed a goal off a turnover born of a risky play by Ovechkin, and now they were facing the possibility that another goal allowed would put them in an 0-3 deficit in games and Game 4 to be played in Columbus.
The last 15:48 of regulation time after Panarin’s game-tying goal was a time fraught with tension, not to mention a distinct tilt in the ice favoring the Blue Jackets. After the Panarin goal, Columbus out-shot the Caps 7-2 over the next four minutes. In fact, Washington’s first shot on goal after that Columbus tally was credited to Tom Wilson 3:42 later from a distance of 78 feet – not exactly a tester for goalie Sergei Bobrovsky. But the scary part for the Caps would come late. With just 1:14 left in regulation and the game tied, Panarin very nearly struck again, hitting the post. The puck stayed out, though, and the teams went to overtime.
The first overtime almost spelled doom for the Caps once more. John Carlson took a tripping call 15:42 into the period to put the Blue Jackets on a power play. With the clock under four minutes and the Caps unable to clear the puck out of their end, Seth Jones set up Cam Atkinson at the top of the right wing circle. Atkinson snapped a shot that rang off the near post behind Braden Holtby, but with the crowd half out of their seats to celebrate the win, the puck caromed off to the side boards.
The teams would go to a second overtime, and anyone with even a casual knowledge of Caps hockey knew this was an unforgiving place. Washington had a franchise record of 3-9 in multi-overtime playoff games and had lost their two most recent such games (a three-overtime game against the New York Rangers in the second round in 2012 and a two-overtime game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2017).
However, in a sign that this Capitals team might be different from any of their predecessors, they opened the second overtime by tilting the ice in a direction more favorable to them. The Caps out-shot the Blue Jackets, 6-0, to start the second overtime. The early advantage appeared to wane, though. After the Caps recorded their sixth shot on goal of the period 4:03 into the frame, they went silent for several minutes. But as the clock ticked toward the nine minute mark, the Caps caught a break of the sort they rarely see in these games and even more rarely still, convert.
Christian Djoos had his head up in his own end and spied Devante Smith-Pelly exiting the zone. Hit with the exit pass in stride, Smith-Pelly skated in the middle of what became a 3-on-2 rush for the Caps, Lars Eller on his right and Brett Connolly on his left. As he got to the Columbus blue line, he fed Connolly for a shot from the top of the left wing circle that Bobrovsky stopped but could not control cleanly.
The puck popped out to Bobrovsky’s left. Defenseman Zach Werenski, who was trying to tie up Smith-Pelly at the top of the crease, was in poor position to do anything about the puck tumbling into the path of Eller. He did, however, manage to turn and try to swat the loose puck into the corner. The misbehaving puck did not allow him to get a solid swipe at it, and he managed only to bat it off Eller’s left leg. The puck rebounded back and off Werenski’s left leg and into the skates of Eller. It nicked the right skate of the Capital forward and crawled over the goal line to Bobrovsky’s left at the 9:00 mark of the period.
The play required video review but was deemed a good goal, and the Caps escaped with a 3-2 win to get back within a game in the series. They went on to dominate the Blue Jackets in Game 4, 4-1, before winning Game 5 (another overtime decision) and Game 6 by a comfortable 6-3 margin. The rest, as they say is history.
There will be a parade on Tuesday for the newly-crowned Stanley Cup champions in downtown Washington. But for 44 minutes almost two months ago, hard fought minutes that a champion always seems to have to confront along the way, June 12 would be just another workday in Washington with a hockey season long over.