LAS VEGAS – There are stories behind the story for every Stanley Cup champion and the tales around the ice as the Washington Capitals celebrated here Thursday night were eye-opening.
But there's no way to describe something 43 years in the making without starting with Alex Ovechkin. In his 13th season, the Great Eight finally got to hoist the Cup following Washington's 4-3 win over Vegas in Game 5 of the final in T-Mobile Arena.
And the adulation was quickly spread to longtime friend and center Nicklas Backstrom, who took the Cup from Ovechkin and was joined by him for part of his twirl around the ice with hockey's holy grail.
"Me and him have been together and always fighting through a lot of negative things, lots of problems," Ovechkin said. "I was really happy when we did and I told him right away, 'I'm going to give it to you.' But it's a special moment for all of us, not just me and Nicky."
The Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP went to Ovechkin, who scored his franchise-record 15th goal of the postseason in the second period. Ovechkin became just the second player in NHL history to win his first Cup after 1,000-plus games with his team. The other was Detroit's Steve Yzerman, who won his first exactly 21 years earlier.
"This is what we dreamed of for years," Backstrom said. "I'm so proud of everyone. ... It was nice that he skated around with me. We've been waiting a long time. To share it with each other and everyone, it was great."
The Capitals were surely great in this series, handing Vegas the first four-game losing streak of its entire inaugural season after spotting the Knights a 6-4 victory in Game 1. They got clutch goaltending from Brayden Holtby, including his miraculous paddle save off Alex Tuch in Game 2 that seems to be the turning point of the series when viewed in the rear-view mirror.
"It doesn't come easy. It took years. Years of heartbreak," Holtby said. "Years of breaking things down and trying again, breaking things down and trying again, and this group never gave up and we finally did it."
Washington joined the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins as the only team to win a Cup after trailing at some point in all four rounds. And the Capitals, victimized by so many agonizing comebacks in playoff series over the years, finally got to the top of the hockey world with a clutch comeback of their own.
Vegas had a 3-2 lead heading into the third period on Reilly Smith's power-play goal with 28.2 seconds left in the second period. The Golden Knights were 10-0 in this postseason when leading after two periods, but the Capitals overcame that number, too.
Devante Smith-Pelly tied the game with 10:08 left, sweeping a rebound past Marc-Andre Fleury while falling down. Smith-Pelly, who had seven goals in 75 games in the regular season, notched his seventh goal in 24 playoff games. Lars Eller then pounded home a loose puck with 7:37 left after Brett Connolly's shot leaked through Fleury's pads and that stood up as the Cup-winning goal.
The Caps held on tight as the clocked ticked on – and even as it stopped in the final minute due to a malfunction. When the horn finally sounds, Ovechkin hopped off the bench in glee, joining his teammates in a huge pile of thrown sticks and helmets by the end boards.
Ovechkin gave the Cup not only to Backstrom, but also to coach Barry Trotz and to owner Ted Leonsis, whom he lifted in a bear hug before turning over the trophy.
"We were swimming in the pool in his house and he told me one day we're going to win it. It was the first year," Ovechkin recalled. "I didn't even know the team. I knew he wants it so bad and this organization wants it so bad. It's nice to be part of it. ... It was a tough time, but we fight through it and we get results."
"If you watched the reaction of his teammates when he got the Cup, I think speaks volumes about how guys feel about him," said veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik. "He’s a very unique captain and you’ll probably never find another guy like him. He leads in a very unique way. But he definitely pulls guys into the fight.’’
It's amazing to ponder this postseason for the Caps. They dropped the first two games at home aginast Columbus and went double overtime in Game 3 before finally winning to start a run of four straight victories. They overcame what they called "the Pittsburgh dragon" in round two and got shutouts from goalie Brayden Holtby in Games 6 and 7 to dump Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference final.
Trotz has no contract for next year and possibly could be heading out the door to some place like Long Island or Minnesota. He almost certainly would have been fired had the Caps lost to either the Blue Jackets or Penguins. Players were missing from last year's Presidents' Trophy team and the Caps persevered.
Eller became the first Dane to win a Cup and the Hockey Hall of Fame was on the ice afterward asking for his stick that scored the winning goal.
"Fleury was so far out, I know I was going to go to the rebound but he was so far out I couldn't get in front of him which is usually where the rebound comes," Eller said. "So I got behind him and the puck just squeaks through. ... I was at the right place at the right moment."
Winger T.J. Oshie was struggling to keep his emotions in check after discussing in multiple interviews that his father, Tom, is suffering form Alzheimer's and has memory loss. But Tom Oshie was on the ice Thursday and knew exactly what was going on.
"What a great human being, what a great man, what a great father," Oshie said. "Some things slip his memory these days but this one, I think this one is going to be seared in there. I don't think any disease is going to take this one away from him. He knows. He's gonna take a looooong drink out of that big thing over there."
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) June 8, 2018
Yes, that big thing. The Stanley Cup. The Caps have been trying to get their hands on it since 1974 and Ovechkin had failed to touch it since coming from Russia in 2005. Ovechkin had endured multiple playoff crushers along the way, many of which were laid at his skates.
All that disappointment ended here Thursday.
"It's something special. I just wanted to do whatever I can to win the Cup and we did it," Ovechkin said. "It's something I can't explain how I feel. It's unbelievable."