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.
It has become something of an annual rite of spring for the Capitals and Penguins to clash in the second round of the playoffs. The past two seasons, it’s been Pittsburgh moving on - not only to the third round but eventually to another Cup win. This year, however, the tables turned, and it was the Caps who advanced to eventually hoist the championship trophy... something that may not have happened if the third period of Game 5 had gone much differently.
After Pittsburgh bounced back for a victory at home in Game 4, the Pens and Caps returned to DC for a crucial Game 5 knotted up at two wins apiece. For the second-straight game the Caps would be facing their rivals with a depleted forward lineup; already missing Andre Burakovsky, who had been injured in the first round, Tom Wilson was on the sidelines serving the second game of a hefty three-game suspension.
At the start of the game, Devante Smith-Pelly was slotted into Wilson’s spot on the team’s top line, as he had been in a somewhat disastrous Game 4. But when the two teams returned to the locker room after the second period, Pittsburgh in front by one, Coach Trotz made a crucial decision that altered the course of the game and likely the series by replacing Smith-Pelly with Jakub Vrana. The impact was felt almost immediately. Just 52 seconds into the third period, Vrana’s neutral-zone pass found new linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov, who put the puck past Murray to tie the game at three.
Despite the tie score, however, the Caps weren’t out of the woods yet - and things were about to get interesting.
Nicklas Backstrom had appeared to be in some discomfort after blocking a shot midway through the first period. He remained in the game, but was limited for much of it, and finally exited a few minutes after Kuznetsov’s tying goal in the third period. An already battered forward group took a huge hit with Backstrom’s departure, and it was now up to the shortened bench to not only maintain the tie but somehow break it.
They also had to be worried about some of the big guns on the other side, most notably Sidney Crosby, who had been Backstrom’s assignment for much of the series. It was a tough test of the team’s resilience and “next man up” philosophy... and the Caps passed with flying colors. Not only was Crosby held off the scoresheet for the remainder of the game, but he was also held without a shot on net (after getting three through the first two periods, including a second-period power-play goal).
Now all that remained was for the Caps to take the lead - and once again it was the new-look top line coming to the rescue. Vrana had set up two of the Caps’ three goals on the evening to that point; now it was his turn to strike, and he did just that with less than five minutes remaining to put the Caps in front and raise the decibel level inside Capital One Arena.
Empty-net goals by Lars Eller and T.J. Oshie helped provide some insurance in the final minutes (and made the score look a bit gaudier), and the Caps were firmly in control of the series with two chances to eliminate their rivals for the first time since 1994 - all thanks to a timely coaching decision and the ability of the team to adjust to adversity of all kinds.