PITTSBURGH – Gazing skyward and exhaling a deep breath, Alex Ovechkin’s look of relief reflected the feelings of an entire franchise and its fans so desperate for success. Finally, the Washington Capitals had overcome arch-rival Pittsburgh Penguins to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in 20 years.
The way in which they disposed of the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions was calm, clinical, and courageous. There was no Tom Wilson (suspension) and no Nicklas Backstrom (injury), however that didn’t phase Barry Trotz’s men who banded together and silenced a typically riotous Pittsburgh crowd.
Despite looking the better of the two teams in the opening period, the Capitals were unable to take an early lead. The Penguins appeared nervous, lacking speed and often unable to maintain possession of the puck, and looked every bit a team on the verge of elimination on home ice. The Capitals however were unable to capitalize despite creating numerous chances on Matt Murray who was proving to be exceptional in goal.
Early in the second though, Australian Nathan Walker, making his playoff debut, showed his highly regarded speed beating a pair of Penguins before setting up a perfect pass to Alex Chiasson who beat Murray short side. It was just the second goal of Chiasson’s NHL playoff career and the assist was Walker’s first point. It was a just reward for the fourth line who looked good for most of the night.
The goal seemed to spark life into the Pittsburgh faithful who’s voice lifted their team as the intensity lifted on the ice. The Penguins were pushing hard and 11:52 into the period, Kris Letang put an inconsistent series behind him by tying the game, beating Braden Holtby with a one-timer that deflected off of Chandler Stephenson’s stick. The Penguins would continue to push for the remainder of the period, however the safety of the second intermission was welcomed by the Capitals with the game still tied at one.
The final period was controlled by the Capitals from the get-go, however it was the performances of both Murray and Holtby which stole the show. The goal-tending duo were simply exceptional, stopping everything which came their way in what proved to be a highly entertaining, free flowing period. Credit must also be given to the officials who put the whistles away and let the boys play hockey – it was a real lesson to the NHL which needs to push this agenda strongly as the conference finals await.
Still tied at two at the end of regulation, the teams headed to overtime where the Capitals continued to dominate. Searching for a game and series winner, it was Evgeny Kuznetsov who stood up and played hero 5:27 in, after receiving the puck at center ice from Alex Ovechkin before racing down the ice and beating Murray to send Washington fans into hysterics.
The win marks the first time the Capitals have reached the conference finals since the 1997-98 season. In between, there had been 12 failed playoff campaigns where exits in the first (six) and second (six) round were all too familiar and always full of unrivaled heartache. Five of those failed campaigns were at the hands of the Penguins:
- 1999-00 (first round), 1-4
- 2000-01 (first round), 2-4
- 2008-09 (second round), 3-4
- 2015-16 (second round), 2-4
- 2016-17 (second round), 3-4
Speaking after the curse was broken, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said:
“Finally! We beat the Penguins. Thank God it’s happened. Move forward.”
The Capitals now face the highly-fancied Tampa Bay Lightning who after finishing the regular season with a 54-23-5 record, have easily disposed of the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins, each in five games. The series will mark the first time in Alex Ovechkin’s glorious career he’s appeared in the conference finals and despite most believing the Capitals will have a tough challenge ahead of them, he can take comfort in knowing his team has won eight of its last 10 games against top quality opposition.
Anything is possible. #ALLCAPS