As most of the team has scattered to their home towns and countries, and focus turns to the business of Hockey Summer - the draft, free agency, and beyond - it felt like a good time for one last look back at what turned out to be a magical playoff run. So join us as we reflect on some of our favorite moments from this year’s postseason, and feel free to add your own in the comments!
J.P.: Obviously this win means a lot to me as a fan, as a member of a community, as a hobbyist writer/manager/whatever and so on.
But I have another personal connection to how things went down. Back in January, my dad took my son to his first game, a matinee against the Blues. The Caps won in overtime, my son loved the game and for some reason decided Lars Eller was his favorite player (not Backstrom, who scored the OT goal, etc., but Eller).
Anyway, a few weeks later he was running a fever and woke up in the middle of the night sorta speaking nonsense and was unreachable. Like, couldn’t tell you his sister’s name or anything (very scary!). We call 911 and they’re en route and he gets with it. The way I knew? I asked him who his favorite player was and he said, “Lars Eller.”
Maybe you had to be there, but it was this incredible relief that he hadn’t... I don’t know, had a stroke or something? He was fine, Eller’s still his guy, and he’s my guy too. So to end the series on an Eller goal... added to the tears.
Becca: Eller played a big role in my favorite memories, as well, albeit not in as quite a moving, life-affirming way. I’ve been a fan of our Dane since he joined the Canadiens, and practically the minute he signed his contract extension with the Caps earlier this year I was on my way to the team store to purchase my new Eller jersey. So I was pretty ecstatic to see him score a couple of truly gorgeous hideous goals, one in double overtime against the Jackets to cut the series deficit in half and more famously in Game 5 to clinch the Cup.
Beyond that, I loved Alex Ovechkin’s last-minute game-winning goal that he batted past Matt Murray to give the Caps a 2-1 series lead. Beating the Pens in overtime was satisfying - and yes, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal to help the Caps advance in Game 6 is forever embedded in my brain - but there’s almost something more satisfying about the heartbreak of a late goal. Everyone thought that game was going to overtime, a frame that has historically not been kind to the Caps and historically been VERY kind to the Penguins (at least when facing the Caps). To deny that team, and those fans, the chance to go to sudden-death overtime but still put them behind late enough in the game that it felt like sudden death... yeah, that’s good stuff.
Speaking of my over-developed love of schadenfreude, literally any time anyone in red, white, and blue hit Chris Kunitz. Every single hit could just be injected into my veins in lieu of caffeine to jumpstart my day. Some people deserve to be hit cleanly, legally, and often, and Kunitz is absolutely one of those players.
Beyond that, I’d throw in a few general feelings beyond just a singular moment in time. Game 4 in Columbus when the Caps just put the hammer down and made a statement that the early two-game deficit was a mirage. Game 5 against the Penguins, in front of a raucous home crowd, when the team took over in the third period - I knew, with as much certainty as a life-long Caps fan can muster, that Game 6 would be it, that their next game at Capital One would be in the Eastern Conference Final. I didn’t have that same certainty after Game 6 against Tampa, but I also knew that I’d never seen them play a finer game in the postseason and that if they could take care of business on the road... something special could happen.
And it did.
Eric: When Vrana scored in Game 5 against Pittsburgh to set the stage for what was to come, I immediately got the sense that something special was at play. Not the “Oh my god they’re a win away” feeling that I’ve gotten with all four local teams in the round of eight in recent years, but “They’re gonna do this.”
“Kuznetsov moving on in…” I didn’t see the puck go in, and it wasn’t the bird celebration or the “GOAL” flash across the scoring bug that made me realize it was over. It was the team piling up, one-by-one, against the glass right in front of dozens of Pittsburgh fans who had the look on their face that we’ve seen from Washingtonians so many times over the years.
This was my reaction to each Game 7 goal against Tampa:
- 1-0: Oh come on.
- 2-0: Seriously?
- 3-0: No. No way.
- 4-0: (fire alarm scene from The Office as I struggle to “stay f%&king calm!”)
Caps are up 4-3 late in the game a couple Thursdays ago. I’m at my new favorite sports bar in Old Town Manassas with a bunch of strangers who are my best friends in the world. A few of us are all standing next to each other and looking up at the TV and decide to “bring it in”. We drape our arms around the shoulders of the people next to us and go through our own rituals, internally and externally. I’m praying, others are perfectly still and just looking at the screen, and we all start yelling when the clock disappears. For a moment, I think we won’t know the game’s over until the green lights go on behind the net — if they do at all.
When Eller clears the puck with six seconds left, everyone loses their minds thinking the game is over. Of course, à la the 1994 Rangers, there’s barely enough time left for a faceoff after the icing. Either 26 or 44 years or an entire lifetime, whichever figure bears more importance to you, of waiting gets protracted by 0.6 seconds. But when Ovechkin and Backstrom and Stephenson hug on the bench, we all know. As Eller prepares to play the role of Craig MacTavish and David Perron is Pavel Bure, all I can think to say is “Drop the puck! Drop the puck!”
The horn sounds, and this is where the memories get a little foggy for a moment. To be sure, there’s lots of hugging, high-fives, screaming, crying, jumping up-and-down, even a little slack-jawed speechlessness throughout the place. The handshake line starts, and the manager mutes the TV audio. The recognizable yet heretofore unfamiliar opening strain of “We Are the Champions” emerges from the speakers. A disorganized choir dressed in red, intoxicated not just from beer and cocktails but from unchecked exhilaration, belts out every word at full voice in such a way that puts the late Freddie Mercury himself to shame. After this comes the Conn Smythe presentation, followed by the greatest athlete in D.C. sports history finally grasping sports’ greatest trophy and lifting that chalice over his head, and in a way, all of us along with it.
Soon after this, I crouch down with my head in my hands, not crying yet, but still in utter shock. The tears come seconds later, when I put my head down on my table and bawl as I think of old friends who loved this team and watched this triumph not from downtown D.C. or a bar or their living rooms, but from the stars. I also remember in this moment my editor from the now-defunct District Sports Page, Dave Nichols, who first gave me an opportunity to write about this team in 2014. He was at the team’s second home game in 1974. He and his wife, Cheryl, made a spur-of-the-moment decision hours before faceoff — they flew from their home in Idaho to Las Vegas for the game.
A few people patted me on the back or gave me a hug, but my outpouring of emotion wasn’t for me; I’ve only been at it since 2006 with this team. It was for Dave and and Cory and Jacob and everyone else that I’ve met and haven’t met who endured the chokes and the jokes at their expense until 11:06 p.m. when Erik Haula’s shot attempt was too little and too late. The mayhem that followed was emblematic of the now-famous passage by Steve Summers, the late former Hershey Bears beat writer from the Harrisburg Patriot-News, uttered annually on NBC by Mike Emrick: “The episodes in life that last so many years in memory are often measured in fleeting moments as they happen.” The moment was fleeting, but the feeling was not. And it never will be.
- CBJ: Lars Eller’s quadruple-take before realizing that he scored the game-winning overtime goal in Game 3, perhaps the single most important play of the postseason. Having already lost two games in overtime, had they lost in a third, it is not beyond imagination that they would have gone quick and quiet in Game 4. A sweep in the opening round? It could have made for an ugly summer of blowing up the team. As it was, that was a moment that the Caps have had little of in the past.
- PIT: Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime breakaway against Pittsburgh in Game 6. Hockey is a different animal than other sports. An overtime game winner usually comes as a thunderclap, unexpected, and instantaneously loud (like Tom Kuhnhackl’s shot off the post moments earlier). Not like a game-winning drive in overtime in football or even a walk-off hit in baseball. You can see those coming. But the way that play unfolded, with Ovechkin getting the puck, sending it up to Kuznetsov, splitting the defense, going in alone on Matt Murray. The play had a sense of anticipation and uncertainty to it, building over seconds that seemed like hours and not knowing if “this it finally it!” I can’t watch that play often enough.
- TBL: Yeah, every time Kunitz got drilled. But Braden Holtby’s effort in Game 6 - an elimination game - stands out. He’s had some troubles on home ice in such games before, but even though his workload was relatively light (24 shots), he had to be perfect for much of the game (the Caps did not have a two-goal lead until 50 minutes had been played, and they got an empty-net goal late). That was the game in which Holtby established himself as a Smythe possibility. But if there is a close second, it might be Barry Trotz’ hot lap before Game 7.
- VGK: Ovechkin faces on the bench. He was a fan’s fan when he wasn’t on the ice. Other than the team pouring off the bench at the final horn and each of them skating the Cup around the rink at the end, it’s hard to find a moment from that series. In an odd way, perhaps on ice it was the Devante Smith-Pelly goal in Game 5. A lot was packed into that goal. Unsung player rescued off the buy-out heap who barely made the team. A moment in which he had the game on his stick, but then he was being tripped from behind just as he was breaking into dangerous scoring chance territory. Starts to tumble to the ice, but he maintained his focus and kept his stick on the puck. A flick while horizontal to the ice, catching Marc-Andre Fleury by surprise (not uncommon, he seemed a bit surprised by the relentless fire power the Caps were throwing at him that he didn’t see or was able to turn away in the first three rounds), and it’s a tie game again. He might have been the perfect player to put the Caps back in the game and in a position to go ahead and win the Cup.
Kevin: The reality is, the big moments are the big moments, and most of our favorites are shared not just between the writers here at The Rink, but across the entire fanbase. The writers ahead of me have already done a fantastic job of capturing the essence of what made this run so special, so I’ll offer up a point of levity that stuck with me, for whatever reason.
This is a look at Braden Holtby’s parents, and specifically his mother, after the Caps took a 2-1 lead in Game 3 in Washington.
For context, in this game a Braden Holtby gaffe behind the net allowed Tomas Nosek to score a little over two minutes into the third period, cutting what felt like a commanding 2-0 lead to a clench-worthy one-goal lead. Thankfully, ten minutes later Devante Smith-Pelly potted one of his seven playoff goals to secure the victory, the potential soul-crushing-boner was deflated, and the Caps took their first Stanley Cup series lead in franchise history.
In retrospect, there’s something special about the ability to wave a hand at all the bullshit that went wrong on the road to something that went so right. Holtby turning that puck over and immediately paying the price for it is precisely the type of thing that felt like it could trigger a collapse. Instead, it’s a blip on the radar, barely memorable. That’s the privilege of winning, and we’re still swilling it around in our mouths, not sure exactly how it tastes, but knowing for damn sure that it tastes wonderful. Right now, we’re all Tami Holtby... and it feels real good.
Pepper: Ovechkin’s baseball-style GWG in the dying moments of regulation in PIT to stun the locals in Game 3 of Round 2. Wilson pressuring Maatta as only Tommy Dubs can pressure. The fact that it was Backstrom to Ovechkin to take the game, and series lead. And last but certainly not least, savoring the reaction of the fans in the front rows to Ovi’s celly.
Burakovsky’s two goals in Tampa in Game 7, making a different, prominent ex-Ranger defenseman look silly each time.
TJ Oshie blowing up Colin Miller in Game 4 of the Final, once to set up the Kempny goal that buried VGK in that game, and a second time for good measure on the next shift, in almost the same spot on the ice. Just an incredible display of will and a hair-raising example of the alpha dogs of that Final round taking it next level.
Emily: That look of relief on Ovi’s face after Kuznetsov buried his G6 OT Series winner.
Relief! Not the primal scream of the victor but profound humility.
Stringham: Nothing compares to watching Ovechkin finally lift the Cup but I guess that might not count as part of “the run”. I’ll go with these instead:
- Backstrom’s OTGWG in G5 against CBJ.
- We talk a lot about the Eller goal in G3 but this goal was huge! The Capitals entered the third period up by a goal and then proceeded to blow it, as they did frequently in the first two rounds. They were outshot by Columbus 16-1 in the third period and eventually allowed the GTG.
- Backstrom saved the day for the Caps by deflecting a Dmitry Orlov point shot past Bobrovsky in the first overtime.
- Vrana’s third period in G5 against Pittsburgh.
- Trotz moved Vrana up to play with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin and it paid some big dividends, Vrana had the primary assist on Kuznetsov’s tying goal and then scored the GWG on an Ovechkin feed not long after.
- Ovechkin’s G3 goal against the Vegas Golden Knights.
- There was just something really special about seeing Ovechkin score at home in the SCF.
- My Dad and I have been attending Capitals games regularly since 06-07 and have been season ticket holders since 07-08. When the Capitals went down 3-2 to Tampa after winning the first two games on the road I was pretty convinced the series was over, my Dad’s refrain was “it doesn’t matter how you get to 4, just that you get there”. Obviously, his faith was rewarded. Watching this run with him is something I’ll never forget and forever be thankful for.
Rob: Game 4 against Columbus was great for me because after three OT games in a row the Caps finally came out and put their foot down, tied the series, and avoided another one of those painful 1-3 holes. It was also great to see Kuz bust out in a big way--a sign of more to come. Caps have needed someone, anyone, besides Nick and Ovi to step up, and Columbus gave us the early preview.
Obviously the Kuznetsov series-winning OTG was incredible, but the moment I’ll never forget is game 3. I was watching in a hotel bar (Richardson, TX), and there was a man older than me rooting for the Penguins, some would say far too old to be rooting so boisterously. The second intermission was a long one, but the third period was maybe the most satisfying period of hockey I had witnessed in some time. His groan when the Caps tied it and then utter silence when Ovi won it in the final minute, batting the puck out of mid-air no less, was as cathartic as it gets. After the game my co-worker went up to him, asked if he was a hockey fan, then made him recount who won game, the score, and who got the GWG. As she walked away she said “go sharks” and left him to cry alone in his beer.
I still remember how impressed I was when Michal Neuvirth went back-to-back shutouts in games 6 and 7 to beat the Manchester Monarchs en route to a Calder Cup championship. Watching Holtby do it in the ECF was incredible. Yes, he got tons of help. But he also had zero letdown in focus--you can still give up cheap goals when your team is controlling the play (NYI game 7… whatever that giveaway was in SCF game 3), but Holtby was locked in and ready. I will also remember how strong the team was in the TBL game 7--that was unlike any other Caps game 7 performance I can remember seeing, even the ones where they’ve won. It was the most confident and assertive do-or-die game I’ve seen from this squad.
The Vegas series... man, where to start. So many plays from the series stand out. The save will go down in Caps history forever. Nick and Ovi holding the Cup has been a long time coming. But for me the lasting memory is just how completely it was a team effort. This wasn’t the Nick and Ovi show--if it was, they wouldn’t have won. Kuznetsov was a monster throughout, and he and Eller really underscored the depth advantage the Caps had on ice. Devante Smith-Pelly had the series of his life, and Jakub Vrana opening the scoring in game 5 was just beautiful. But ultimately, having the opportunity to MTM a Stanley Cup winning goal has been a dream come true, and I’ve watched and gone over that play so many times in my mind now I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. Lars Eller and his “come hither” celebration will be the lasting memory--at least while the clock was running. After that… it’s a bunch of debauchery and fountain swimming.
Jason: There are two phrases, both colored with Doc Emrick’s characteristic driveway-gravel-soaked-in-cognac voice, that will be forever, blessedly, joyously, engraved on my mind and ears.
- Game 6 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, in Pittsburgh, in overtime. Ovechkin pushes the puck forward one-handed to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who gets loose on a breakaway.
And that first phrase is: “Kuznetsov…..MOVING ON IN……..HE SCORES!!!!”
The collective weight of a decades-long complex, a yoke of unfathomable reach and burden, cast off and burned in one single moment. When they lay me in my grave, I’ll remember it.
- The second, also courtesy of the dulcet trainwreck tones of Mr. Emrick, came in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, in Las Vegas.
With the Golden Knights throwing everything they had at the Capitals, trying to take a 2-0 series lead and and truly put their foot on the throats of this Washington squad, a freak carom off the unusually lively backboards and a slick pass presented Vegas’ Alex Tuch with a gaping, yawning net and a potshot at immortality.
What happened next has already been given a one-word, capitalized moniker, befitting of its eternality.
And the shocked, bewildered, and - yes - delighted voice of Doc Emrick, screaming from his lips to God’s ears the words Capitals fans will remember forever:
“OHHHHHHH, and it DIDN’T GO!!!!”
Except this time, for the Capitals, it did. It went all the way. To a Stanley Cup. To a city transformed from self-loathing to self-lauding. To a fanbase whose 44 years of suffering, never without meaning but frequently without joy, have been granted the clemency of new context, and the mercy of designation as simply Prologue.
To everyone involved in this run, thank you. We will never forget this. Go Caps.