- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2018

Alex Ovechkin’s season began with the Capitals star unleashing a hat trick on opening night. It ended with him hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head, skating with the trophy he chased for his entire NHL career.

Finally.

This season, Ovechkin and the Capitals pushed back against the narratives that plagued them for years. We’ve all heard them — even repeated them ourselves. Ovechkin can’t get past the second round. When the pressure is on, the Capitals fold. It’s time to break this core up.

With a victory in Game 5 Thursday over the Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals clinched their first ever championship — and the District’s first in 26 years.

The Capitals did so, perhaps fittingly, in a season when outside expectations were the lowest the club had faced in years.

A rough 20 games

Washington certainly didn’t look like a contender in the first 20 games. The Capitals were a pedestrian 10-9-1, still wallowing in a devastating playoff exit from the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017.

In addition, the Capitals were adjusting to the loss of six key players because of salary cap constraints, replacing them with rookies and minimum-contract players.

The results, at times, were ugly — leaving the Capitals with two choices: get up or stay down.

“If you’re the victim, you stay down,” coach Barry Trotz said. “You roll up in a ball and cry like a baby. If you’re not a victim, you get up, you dust yourself off and say, ‘Screw this. I’m not taking it anymore.’

“I just think they learned that.”

Trotz provided the wake-up call, ripping into his team after one-sided losses in Nashville and Colorado. But the honesty worked, and the Capitals won 20 of the next 30.

Holtby’s reset

If the Capitals had a “coming out party” in 2018, it was the team’s dominant 5-2 win against the Toronto Maple Leafs in March at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Then, Washington had played its best hockey of the season — stomping a Maple Leafs team dubbed a Cup favorite.

But the high of the win was short-lived. Just five days later, goaltender Braden Holtby lost his starting job as part of a “reset.”

In February, Holtby went 2-5-2, giving up four goals per game with an .873 save percentage.

Backup Philipp Grubauer took over and was surprisingly dominant. The 26-year-old came up big in some pivotal games, including Ovechkin’s 600th career goal in March against the Winnipeg Jets (a 3-2 overtime win) and a playoff dress rehearsal on April 1 against the Penguins (a 3-1 win).

Grubauer got the nod to start the playoffs, a move many expected.

But Grubauer struggled in the postseason, allowing eight goals in two games.

Down 0-2, Trotz went back to Holtby, who was phenomenal for the rest of the playoffs. Owner Ted Leonsis said the Capitals’ championship hopes would come down to goaltending, and he was right.

Entering Game 5 of the Final, Holtby had a 2.13 goals against average and a .923 save percentage in the playoffs. He was at his best when he pitched back-to-back shutouts to help the Capitals stave off elimination in the Eastern Conference Final.

And of course, there’s “The Save” — Holtby’s iconic game-saving stick save in Game 2 of the Final.

“That’s one of the beautiful things about our profession and life in general, just that at any time there’s adversity, if you take the right mindset and surround yourself with the right people, you can come out stronger,” Holtby said. “It’s fun. It’s why we play, to challenge yourself in different areas to see if you can push yourself through.”

Staying loose

This Capitals season will be remembered for the team’s postseason run. Washington kept its cool despite going down 0-2 in the first round, blowing a lead in Game 1 of the second round and facing elimination against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Washington consistently produced in big moments — and there’s a reason for that, center Jay Beagle said.

“You look back on the years when we had on paper just unreal teams, dominated the regular season and the expectations maybe get to you,” Beagle said. “You don’t know. After the year, you’re kind of like, ‘What happened? … This year was way different. We felt that almost right from the get-go. There was just no expectation, no pressure from the outside on us.”

With this season’s infusion of youth, the Capitals didn’t dwell on mistakes.

Instead, they focused on the positive. Joy came easily and often to these Capitals. Ovechkin’s reactions to goals go viral. Kuznetsov flaps his arms as part of his signature bird celebration. A teammate wears a race-car helmet after every win.

On Thursday, the Capitals celebrated in the most rewarding way possible in the world of hockey — taking turns skating the ice with the coveted Stanley Cup.


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