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How the Washington Capitals beat history and everyone else for their 1st Stanley Cup

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The Capitals are finally over the hump. They got there with offensive star power, goaltending reliability, and a team-wide belief that their past wouldn’t define them.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Washington Capitals at Vegas Golden Knights Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions for the first time in what had been a tortured 44-year history. They clinched it by beating the Vegas Golden Knights in a fifth game of the league final on Thursday night, on the road, 4-3. The Capitals’ win marks the first title for one of D.C.’s major professional teams since the 1991 season’s Super Bowl.

Lars Eller scored the winning goal 12:23 into the third period of Game 5:

The Capitals were not a postseason buzzsaw. They had to scrap for everything they got until the Final, when they blitzed their first-year expansion opponents in a show of dominance. They lost their first two games of the first round against Columbus before winning four in a row to advance. They lost the first game of their second-round series against Pittsburgh, which had historically owned them, before winning four of five. They lost three in a row after taking a 2-0 lead against Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final, then came back. They scored two goals in the third period of Game 5 to come back there, too.

Five players in particular paced them along the way: centers Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom, winger Alex Ovechkin, defenseman John Carlson, and goalie Braden Holtby. Kuznetsov, Ovechkin, and Backstrom were the playoffs’ top three point-getters in that order. Carlson was a stalwart on the blue line in every situation. Holtby, after the worst regular season of his career and a benching for the first two games of the playoffs, reemerged to play some of his best hockey. He outdid Vegas backstop Marc-Andre Fleury in the Final.

It can’t be overstated what a big deal this has been in the District. Fans in this region hadn’t just gone without a championship for 26 years. They had gone without a Cup forever. They hadn’t even seen their team win a game in this round, as the Capitals got swept out of the Final the only other time they appeared in it, in 1998 against the Red Wings. Their football team is somewhere between a laughingstock and a pariah. The Wizards haven’t won the NBA Finals since they were the Bullets, beating the SuperSonics in 1978. The Nationals have fielded great teams that have always failed to get past the first round. This Capitals spring has given a generation of fans something they’ve never had: a deep, successful run.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Washington Capitals Watch Party
Fans massed in the streets of D.C. to watch Game 5, while their team played two time zones away.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Washington’s star forwards were the primary engines of this run.

Ovechkin is the best goal-scorer of his time and one of the greatest ever. He’s now shedded the designation as one of the best players in history not to win a Stanley Cup. He cast off that label with authority, with 15 goals and 27 points in 24 playoff games. He forged an unstoppable bond with Russian national teammate and first-line centerman Kuznetsov, who announced himself this spring as one of the best hockey talents on Earth. Kuznetsov totaled 32 postseason points. He had a record-tying four assists in a 6-2 Capitals’ romp in Game 4, the night Washington put a firm hold on the series.

Ovechkin and Kuznetsov were the headliners, but the silky, playmaking Backstrom was pivotal, too. He finished with 23 points as the team’s second-line center, taking a de-facto demotion this year after years as Ovechkin’s primary pivot. Backstrom worked between rookie winger Jakub Vrana and power forward T.J. Oshie, and the three were great together.

Backstrom played about half the playoffs with a hand injury that was serious enough to take him out of a few games between the end of the second and start of the third round. Third-line center Eller stepped up his play whenever Backstrom or Kuznetsov was out, and sometimes even when they weren’t.

Their goalie responded to a miserable season in the best way possible.

Holtby had never had a regular season as bad as this one. He finished in the top four in Vezina Trophy voting in each of the three years before this one, winning it in 2016. He had never posted a save percentage below .922 or a goals-against average worse than 2.23 as the Capitals’ full-time starter. This year, he was at .907 and 2.99, awful by any standard.

Coach Barry Trotz sat Holtby down at the start of the playoffs and started his longtime backup Philip Grubauer. When Grubauer sputtered in two starts, Holtby replaced him. Back in his net, Holtby looked like the guy he used to be, not the guy he was in his miserable regular season. His numbers returned to his normal range, which is to say they were great.

Team-wide, the Capitals got over whatever mental blocks might have been erected over years of postseason disappointment.

Maybe it happened when Kuznetsov scored in overtime in Game 6 against the Penguins, vanquishing the two-time defending champions and the team that had beaten the Capitals en route to three Cups in the last decade. Maybe it happened when they came back from 3-2 down to beat the top-seeded Lightning twice and punch their ticket to the Final.

The point is that, somewhere, the Capitals decided they weren’t going to do what the Capitals had always done. There would be no epic collapsing here.

“There’s been heartbreak here,” Oshie told reporters from a podium at Capital One Arena after the fourth game of the Final. “We know that. But I think that’s scarred us over and made us stronger for it. We’ll keep pressing on, keep working and try to do something cool.”

They’ve done something cool.