PITTSBURGH — Alex Ovechkin, wrapped in two towels as he talked to reporters at his locker Monday night, had pulled a red baseball cap over his matted hair — but not so far down that the cap could cover gray hair blooming at his temples.
Ovechkin has been in the N.H.L. for 13 years, but until Monday night he had never made it past the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. That long dry spell finally ended after the Capitals beat Pittsburgh in overtime, 2-1, to oust the Penguins in six games.
“It’s awesome. It feels great. I’ve never been in this position before,” Ovechkin said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
The Capitals will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in what will be Ovechkin’s first Eastern Conference final. The Lightning, who finished with the best record in the East, are in the conference finals for the third time in the past four years and loaded up at the trade deadline for a Stanley Cup run.
The Capitals finally made it into new territory after a decade of coming painfully close. Washington was eliminated by Pittsburgh in the seventh game of the conference semifinals last year. The Caps were eliminated in the same round by the Rangers in 2015 after taking a 3-1 series lead. They lost Game 7s to the Rangers in 2012 and in 2013.
With 607 goals in 1,003 regular-season N.H.L. games and another 54 goals in 109 playoff games, Ovechkin, 32, has been prolific, but his accomplishments have been tempered by his team’s lackluster postseason performances.
Besides the Capitals moving past the second round for the first time since 1998, this is the first time that Washington Coach Barry Trotz, an N.H.L. coach for 19 seasons, has taken one of his teams beyond the conference semifinals. Trotz knew exactly what Ovechkin was enduring.
“It’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns,” Trotz said.
He pointed out that the Capitals are merely halfway to their first Stanley Cup, but they do not have to talk about the dismal past anymore. They beat Pittsburgh, the two-time defending champion, by showing resilience.
Trotz said he handed Ovechkin a different sort of challenge Monday morning before Game 6: He told Ovechkin, who scored 49 goals in the regular season and eight in the playoffs, that it would be “more important to check correctly.”
“I talked to him about leading the charge there,” Trotz said.
Ovechkin had five shots on goal, with five more attempts blocked and another that missed the goal, but he was also credited with a game-high seven hits. He also shook off an injury to his right hand after he was slashed in the second period by Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang.
And Ovechkin did assist on the winning goal, shoveling a pass to center Evgeny Kuznetsov that he turned into a breakaway. Less than three minutes after Pittsburgh forward Tom Kuhnhackl hit the goal-post with a shot, Kuznetsov ended the game 5 minutes 27 seconds into overtime.
But the Capitals also got a second-period goal from the fourth-line winger Alex Chiasson, who took a pass from Nathan Walker — an Australian native in his first playoff game — and slammed his first playoff goal between the legs of Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray.
The Capitals, who were without the injured center Nicklas Backstrom and forward Andre Burakovsky and the suspended forward Tom Wilson, dressed five rookies on Monday. Trotz still thought the Capitals would win — especially after Kuhnhackl hit the goal-post.
When Washington goaltender Braden Holtby was asked about how the Caps might have motivated themselves by overcoming their past, he said, “I don’t think we have time to focus on that.”
Holtby was strong again Monday, allowing only a second-period goal by Letang that deflected off the stick of Washington forward Chandler Stephenson before it skipped past him. Holtby gave up 13 goals on 164 shots in the series to the potent Penguins.
But Ovechkin has been the Capitals’ focal point since he joined the team, and the television cameras pulled in tight when the traditional post-series handshake line formed after the game. Crosby, first in line, shook Ovechkin’s hand, patted him and wished him well.
“I’ve been in that position lots of times,” Ovechkin said.
The Penguins had eliminated the Capitals from the 2016 and 2017 playoffs before winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. Their quest for a three-peat ended Monday, and the Penguins were warmly applauded by their fans when they left the ice after the game.
A half-hour later, Trotz sat at a postgame news conference and said: “It’s good getting past the Penguins. It was a skeleton in the closet.”
The Caps would have had one more chance to win the series, but they are 3-7 in Game 7s in the Ovechkin Era. They won’t have to worry about that now.
“Nobody expected that we were going to be in this position before the season,” Ovechkin said, before adding, “We beat the two-time Stanley Cup champion, and we gave us a greater feeling about ourselves.”