When the Caps took the ice at Amalie Arena on May 23, 2018, they found themselves in exceedingly familiar and yet completely foreign territory. After all, it was a Game 7 – their first of the 2018 postseason but far from the first one in recent Caps’ history. They knew about these winner-take-all showdowns.
What made this night different were the stakes. Venturing into the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in two decades – and the first time overall for the Alex Ovechkin Capitals – the Caps had stayed alive in the series thanks to an incredible effort in Game 6 at home and now returned to Tampa with the chance to do something no one thought possible. Win and they’d move on to the Stanley Cup Final to face the upstart Vegas Golden Knights… lose, and they’d just go home.
Now one year later, a look back at this pivotal moment in the Caps’ Cup run.
The Hot Lap has become an integral part of the Caps’ pregame skate when away from DC, initiated back in the first round by Jay Beagle and then snatched away by the captain after a Game 4 loss in Pittsburgh back in Round 2. With the Caps having dropped their last road visit to Tampa, it’s time for Ovechkin to step down and a new face to emerge. And that new face is...
Caps lost their last road game. So someone else had to do the hot lap. It was Barry friggin’ Trotz. pic.twitter.com/F5k9j9AfkS— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 23, 2018
“They called my number...at this time of year, you’re all in.” - Barry Trotz
Pregame skate and Trotzian Hot Lap in the books, the boys are ready to do what no one thought they could do.
“I don’t think anybody thought we’re going to be fighting against Tampa Bay Lightning for the Stanley Cup final in Game 7. I don’t think you [reporters] felt like you’re going to be here. Probably thought you’re going to be on vacation somewhere. But we’re here and we’re excited.” - Alex Ovechkin (Washington Post, 5/22/18)
The fans are ready, too, both in DC...
Over an hour from puck drop but the #capitals fans are ready to go ! F St is already a sea of red and chants of “ Let’s Go Caps “. This doesn’t happen in a “minor league town “. Way to bring it DC !! pic.twitter.com/fsGyaMQMrg— Al Koken (@RealSmokinAl) May 23, 2018
...and in Florida:
I'm surprised at how much Washington red is mixed into the Tampa blue among the fans at Amalie Arena tonight.— Scott Burnside (@OvertimeScottB) May 24, 2018
It’s go time.
Start of 1st Period
The puck drops on the final game of the Eastern Conference Final, and it becomes clear right from the get-go that the Caps’ top line, at least, is not messing around. Less than a minute into the first period, Tom Wilson forces a turnover by laying out Chris Kunitz with a huge hit at neutral ice. The puck ends up on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s stick, and then:
So the Caps get on the board with that all-important first goal – and yet despite the lead, nobody in a Caps’ jersey is feeling comfortable right now.
Caps are playing with fire. Tampa Bay has gotten the better zone time/chances since the Ovechkin goal.— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 24, 2018
1st period, 7:01 remaining
The Caps are leading, Tampa’s pressing, and things are starting to get feisty on the ice. With a mass of humanity gathering around the Tampa net in yet another post-whistle scrum, Bolts blueliner Braydon Coburn makes the odd decision to steal Kuznetsov’s jersey and fling it on the ground.
Needless to say, Tom Wilson... is unimpressed.
Coburn ripped Kuznetsov's jersey off. And Wilson lost his mind.— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 24, 2018
After a brief scuffle, both Coburn and Wilson are sent to their respective penalty boxes and told to sit quietly for two minutes. Instead they choose to use that time to yell at each other across the timekeeper’s bench – but surely they’ll wear themselves out and nothing more will come of this. After all, it’s Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. There shall be no fisticuffs tonight.
1st period, 4:43 remaining
Don’t steal people’s jerseys, BRAYDON.
The moment Tom Wilson and Brayon Coburn got out of the penalty box, the gloves were off! Wilson got some good shots to Cobrun's face. Yikes! Don't see that often in playoff hockey, but this is GAME 7! #ALLCAPS #GoBolts— John Sabol (@John_Sabol) May 24, 2018
Tom Wilson-Braydon Coburn fight fires up Caps fans at arena viewing party pic.twitter.com/RXJXuFn6ni— Stephen Whyno (@SWhyno) May 24, 2018
Wilson gets the better of Coburn on the ice, and the fans waste no time in getting the better of him off it:
End of 1st Period: Caps 1, Lightning 0
Start of 2nd period
Once again, despite the slim lead on the big board, no one’s heart rate is exactly even as Tampa continues t-AHHHHHH!
Yanni Gourde gonna have nightmares about this one pic.twitter.com/xzArF4fWjI— Pete Blackburn (@PeteBlackburn) May 24, 2018
And then Hedman almost-AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!
2nd period, 11:01 remaining
The playoffs are a time of heroes, both likely and unlikely. In the first period, Alex Ovechkin plays the role of the likeliest hero ever as he continues his goal-scoring frenzy with the opening tally. In the second? It’s none other than Andre Burakovsky, finding his game at last and stepping in to give the Caps a much-needed 2-0 lead.
Andre Burakovsky gives the Caps a 2-0 lead. That marks his first goal and point of the playoffs.— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) May 24, 2018
That was the Capitals' second shot of the period. Everything was going Lightning. That goal was HUGE.— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 24, 2018
Just as the Capitals seemed on the brink of losing that one-goal lead to start the second period, enter Lars Eller’s chip into the offensive zone bounced off Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi, who had trouble corralling the puck. Burakovsky swiped it from him, dangled around him and then found the small hole between Vasilevskiy’s elbow and pad to extend the Capitals’ lead. That was just the team’s second shot of the frame. All the while, Ovechkin was vocal on the bench, standing and yelling down the line. (Washington Post 5/24/18)
2nd period, 5:39 remaining
With the Caps back in control, things once again turned chippy, leading to a scary moment when Cedric Paquette runs Brooks Orpik into the boards:
And the result of this blatant disregard for the rules and player safety was?
Cool. Cool cool cool.
Rolling right along...
2nd period, 3:29 remaining
Remember how we mentioned earlier that playoffs can be a time for unlikely heroes? And how Burakovsky found his game? About that...
“You can see Nevada from here!” - John Walton
“[Burakovsky] just told me before the game that he had a good feeling about tonight,” Backstrom said. “And, yeah, he was right. That was a good feeling.” - Nicklas Backstrom (NHL.com, 5/24/18)
End of 2nd period: Caps 3, Lightning 0
Start of 3rd period
A 3-0 lead in hand and the path to the Stanley Cup Final looking clearer and clearer, it’s time for the Caps to do what they’ve become so adept at doing over the past 18 games: lock that sucker down.
Tampa Bay doesn't have a freaking shot this period. This is something else.— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 24, 2018
It's Game 7 in third period and air taken out of building. #tblightning— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) May 24, 2018
No shots on goal in first eight minutes for #tblightning team that's season is on line, and facing 3-0 hole.— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithTB) May 24, 2018
The Caps are smothering the Lightning, keeping them from getting too many shots on net. And when the rare shooter does break through, Braden Holtby is there to make the big save:
3rd period, 3:43 remaining
Nicklas Backstrom seals it with the empty-netter...
Empty. Net. Fucking. Goal. By. Nicky. Backstrom. pic.twitter.com/vKaYrV5Ln6— Homer McFanboy (@HomerMcFanboy) May 24, 2018
...and it is time...
End of Game: Caps 4, Lightning 0; Caps win series 4-3
With the victory, the Caps clinch a date with the Golden Knights and get a shiny new trophy to add to their collection – one that the captain wastes no time getting his hands on, jinxes and curses be damned...
Finally, Ovechkin grabbed the Prince of Wales Trophy for the Eastern Conference champions, unafraid of the superstition about not touching it, maybe because this team has already overcome so many odds. (Washington Post, 5/23/18)
...even if he’s not quite sure what to do with it afterwards.
Ovi: *picks up trophy*— NBC Sports Capitals (@NBCSCapitals) May 24, 2018
Orpik: "put it back"
Ovi: *puts it back*
give the guy a break, it's his first time. pic.twitter.com/t9tG57ie60
It’s just one more step in what has been a very long journey for everyone, but particularly these two:
“You don’t even have to say so much, you just have to look at each other. We’ve been waiting a long time for this.” - Nicklas Backstrom (Washington Post, 5/23/18)
After the game, the captain struggles to put his feelings into words amid the emotion of the moment.
Luckily, as always, Braden Holtby’s got his back.
Now it’s home to DC, new trophy in hand, as the quest for an even better one begins.
And things are starting to feel a bit different.
Maybe in the past the Capitals have had more skill or seemed to be better in some areas than this squad but there has been a metamorphosis in the team’s identity, their character if you will. Didn’t come from changing personnel necessarily but in changing a thought process. (The Athletic, May 24 2019)
This is the Capitals we’re talking about, right? Watch the tape again to be certain. Sure seems like a different team. - Barry Svrluga (Washington Post, 5/24/18)