PITTSBURGH — Alex Ovechkin had played in 1,003 regular-season games and 109 playoff games without advancing beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Barry Trotz had coached 1,524 regular-season games and 101 more in the playoffs, without ever advancing to even the conference finals.
“It’s always thrown in your face, everywhere you turn,” said Trotz. “I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns, and he’s a great player in this league.”
Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s goal in overtime eliminated the Capitals’ postseason tormentors in a 2-1 win, and propelled them to their first championship-round series in 20 years. Washington will face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals for the right to play for the Stanley Cup.
“It feels great. I’ve never been in this position before,” Ovechkin said after the game. “Thank God this happened. We move forward and now I can’t wait for the next game and get ready for Tampa.”
For Ovechkin, the win over the Penguins continues perhaps the best postseason of his career. After failing to overcome Sidney Crosby and his team in three previous tries, Ovechkin was instrumental in Washington’s series win, which cut their all-time series deficit to the Penguins to 2-9. He won Game 3 in Pittsburgh with a goal with 1:07 left in regulation. He assisted on Kuznetsov’s goal in Game 6, springing his linemate for the breakaway tally.
Ovechkin has 15 points in 12 games for the Capitals. He’s not a passenger in this run to the conference finals, but a driver.
“He’s always been good in the playoffs, too. He takes a beating every time, but he’s always been good in the playoffs. Our rock. Our captain,” said Capitals center Jay Beagle.
The Capitals had lost in consecutive seasons to the Penguins, both times in the Eastern Conference semifinals and both times watching Pittsburgh go on to win the Stanley Cup. This wasn’t simply a historic win for the Capitals in the Ovechkin Era, but an emotionally charged comeuppance against their archrivals.
“I don’t want to lie: It tasted a little bit better,” said Kuznetsov. “But I never focus on the history. I just focus on the game.”
This has been the mindset of a Capitals team that showed more fortitude than it had in previous postseasons. The Capitals rallied for a Game 5 win after trailing into the third period. They managed to eliminate Pittsburgh on the road in overtime, after giving up the lead.
The theories abound why this Capitals team — which wasn’t the most talented group they’ve had in the postseason — was the one to break through. Like the fact that so many young players in the Game 6 lineup — which was missing the injured Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky, and the suspended Tom Wilson — had never been a part of this rivalry’s lowest moments.
“We lost lots of great players, and young guys stepping up and gave us a chance to win. I think right now we play as a team and we play together. You can see everybody blocking shots, everybody play defensively. It’s just a situation where everybody has to stick together,” said Ovechkin.
Beagle had another theory: that little was expected from the perennial playoff runners-up, after their own general manager said they had their best shot of winning the Cup last postseason.
“We flew under the radar a little bit, and that took the pressure off,” Beagle said.
Ovechkin agreed that lowered expectations helped.
“Nobody expected we were going to be in this position before this season, in this game and in this playoffs,” he said. “We beat the twice Stanley Cup champion and it gives us pretty good feeling about ourselves.”
The sounds of celebration from the Capitals’ dressing room in Pittsburgh echoed through the arena hallways. There were high-fives. There were hugs. There was outright screaming.
It was a long time coming, for Ovechkin and his coach and so many others in that dressing room — including Beagle, in his 10th year with the Capitals, having never gotten a sniff of the championship rounds.
“It obviously feels great. We’ll enjoy it tonight. But the goal isn’t to get past the second round. The goal is the Stanley Cup,” Beagle said. “It was an exciting time and an exciting moment, but you start to come off it, though. You start to calm down. It starts to settle. You come off of that high pretty quick.
“I wish it would last longer.”