As you may have heard, the Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions. All the familiar faces played their part, but unlike so many years past, so did the less familiar faces. Goals coming from all four lines, goaltending, defense, coaching — it all came together. One of those fresher faces was Lars Eller, and his game-winning goal finally won the Caps their first championship.
The play looked relatively simple: Luca Sbisa makes an ill-timed turnover, Marc-Andre Fleury can’t quite handle Brett Connolly’s shot, and Eller cleans up the garbage (the garbage that Gerard Gallant didn’t take out before the game, that is), right?
Well, let’s take a closer look:
One of the interesting, and poetic, aspects to this goal is that it spans all three zone, and that the Caps won the neutral zone—territory where the Golden Knights had feasted all playoffs. The clip starts as the breakout is already underway, but the Caps clear the zone with possession and they beat the Vegas forecheck, setting up the neutral zone:
John Carlson goes D-to-D to Michal Kempny to set up the breakout. Vegas has two forwards at the top of the circles, but Tomas Nosek is in decent position to try to angle Kempny into the boards.
Kempny manages to slide by (sidenote: what a hell of an acquisition he was) and all of the sudden the Caps have numbers coming through neutral with Kempny carrying the puck with a head of steam. Vegas, as fast as they are, have to respect the fact that Kempny, Burakovsky and Eller are all charging forward. And note that Connolly hanging back across the red line pushes the Vegas defense back, preventing them from closing the gap on the charging cavalry.
Pierre-Édouard Bellemare cuts across the ice to try to provide coverage, but Kempny easily gains the zone with possession and now the Vegas defensive spacing is jumbled:
As soon as Kempny gains the zone, he hits the breaks, and the Vegas defense steps up to close the gap. Kempny lays the puck into the corner, and the Caps’ forecheck is on.
The Caps send two men in hard, one towards each side of the net. Eller is hard on the puck and Burakovsky immediately comes down to take away the pass around the boards to the weak side. Sbisa doesn’t initially see Burakovsky cutting off the passing lane and begins to commit to the pass. It’s hard to tell if Sbisa was originally going around the boards or if he was trying a soft bank to Bellemare, but either way he sort of pulled up on his pass and the puck ends up with Burakovsky.
Connolly had been hanging back high in the zone covering from Kempny’s initial rush, and the Vegas defenders lose track of him, only to have him reappear wide open in the slot. Burakovsky hits him with the pass:
Vegas has the Caps outnumbered below the face-off dots — all five Vegas players are in position to support, and really only two Caps are involved until Connolly reappears. The poor gap control back in the neutral zone set up the forecheck and got Vegas scrambling, giving up this grade-A chance.
Compounding things, from Fleury’s perspective, the incoming shot deflects off Colin Miller and squeaks through. Nothing stands between Eller and the open net — this time, not even a desperation two-handed hack.
Eller makes no mistake and buries the puck, vanquishing the ghosts of Esa Tikkanen, Troy Brouwer, and countless other moments that have saddled Caps fans for decades.
Okay. (And this clip has a much better view of the deflection off of Miller at the 34-second mark.)
Actually, Eller, who had the first and last game-winning goals of the playoffs for the Caps, had this to say postgame:
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” Eller said of the goal, a rebound at 12:23 of the third period while standing behind Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
”It was almost too good to be true. I was trying to get to the rebound. Fleury was so far out I couldn’t get in front of him, so I got behind him, and that’s where the puck comes.
”It’s like you get to write the best story in the world yourself, score the game-winner in the Stanley Cup Final. I don’t know how it can get better than that. We played right to the last second. It was a battle all the way through, just like it’s supposed to be.”
There was still some intrigue left to play out, including Nicklas Backstrom somehow not putting the nail in the coffin with a wide open net, but Eller’s goal stood up. And just like that, the Capitals became champions.
.@Capitals Lars Eller last night on the weight of the #StanleyCup: "It was heavy. I managed to lift it, but I was tired." My column from T-Mobile Arena on Stanley Cup-winning goal-scorer— Dave Stubbs (@Dave_Stubbs) June 8, 2018
It’s been a long time coming, and really any manner of victory would have been great, but beating the Knights at their own game, getting that depth production that has so sorely been lacking over the years, and even getting those bounces they’ve never gotten feels like a fitting way to finally get the monkey off the back.
There are a lot of things to say and feels to feel, but I’ll leave the last word to our fearless Rink leader:
I fucking love Lars Eller so much.— Japers' Rink (@JapersRink) June 8, 2018