LAS VEGAS — There’s nothing clever left to say.
Storytelling isn’t dead yet, not even in the age of viral tweets and memes. But some moments just can’t be adequately captured with words and images. It’s why we’ve kept re-telling some of the same stories throughout human history.
The Washington Capitals won the 2018 Stanley Cup, and when sports teams win championships, players often can’t describe their own emotions. Maybe “amazing” will suffice for TV sound bites. It doesn’t do the accomplishment justice. But for fans, in a moment of ecstasy, it’s OK to feel the same way: at a loss for words.
The Capitals won Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final 4-3 over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday at T-Mobile Arena to win the series four games to one and earn the first Cup in the franchise’s 43-year history.
Devante Smith-Pelly and Lars Eller scored the game-tying and game-winning goals in the middle of the third period. Jakub Vrana and Alex Ovechkin also scored, and Braden Holtby made 28 saves.
A scoreless first period gave way to a wild second period with five goals, two ties and a lead change that temporarily put the Golden Knights ahead. Vegas put up a fight every minute, Smith-Pelly’s and Eller’s goals took away the possibility of a Game 6.
The Vegas Golden Knights made the furthest run a modern-era expansion team has had in any of the four major American sports leagues, but the remarkable story of their debut season ended a few wins short of the Stanley Cup.
An undeniable throng of Capitals fans made the trip west to attend the game, as their red attire permeated the arena and the Las Vegas Strip. For the fourth straight playoff series, the Capitals won the clinching game on the road.
Ovechkin, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, lifted the Cup first and let out a primal scream.
He handed it to longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom, who handed it to Brooks Orpik. Down the line they went: Matt Niskanen. T.J. Oshie. Jay Beagle. John Carlson. Holtby, Eller, and on and on and on.
The team celebrated for much more than an hour after the final horn as family joined them on the ice. Oshie told a scrum of reporters he had to complete the interview to go find his family.
Not much later, Oshie was back in front of an almost endless stream of TV cameras and microphones, holding his daughter in his arms.
“When I was on the bench, the clock wasn’t even going out yet and I was already crying over there,” Oshie said. “I didn’t know I was such a baby. Just a lot of emotions right now. All happy.”
Holtby, Niskanen and Carlson also could be found skating around with their children in tow, the tots waving “Stanley Cup Champions” flags. The club of players’ wives and girlfriends, some of them in tears, all wore special black leather jackets with their partners’ names and numbers on the back and the image of a rose on the side.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis took it in, too, and gave a shoutout to fans, thousands of whom filled up Capital One Arena for the Game 5 watch party in Washington.
“We honestly did this for our fans. This Stanley Cup was for our fans for the love, for the patience, for the support they showed,” Leonsis said.
“It was like we were a bunch of 10 year olds that just won their first hockey tournament,” Eller said. “It was like we were a bunch of little kids again. Amazing. Amazing.”
Amazing. Maybe that word does suffice, after all.
The Capitals had to fend off a flurry of Vegas chances midway through the first period. Golden Knights forward William Carrier went for a wraparound goal, but couldn’t squeeze it past Braden Holtby. Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie blocked consecutive shots, and Shea Theodore missed a follow-up shot wide.
On their first power play, the Capitals couldn’t get anything to work outside of an Alex Ovechkin shot that pinged off the post. The rest of the period ticked away from there, and Holtby made saves with both skate and stick in the final minute. But Vegas played an urgent game that was both fast-paced and physical, out-hitting Washington 18-10 in the first.
The teams traded power plays early in the second, with Theodore tripping Oshie and Christian Djoos high-sticking Reilly Smith. Neither team capitalized, but at even strength, Washington opened scoring 6:24 into the period.
When Vegas blueliner Deryk Engelland missed a shot wide, Kuznetsov picked the puck off the boards and turned the play the other direction. He found Tom Wilson in the middle for a quick play to Vrana, who was flying down the left side. Vrana’s shot hit the crossbar but lit the lamp.
The lead lasted less than four minutes as former Capital defenseman Nate Schmidt scored first for the Knights, on a shot from above the right circle that careened off Matt Niskanen’s skate.
But Brayden McNabb tripped Ovechkin moments after play resumed, and Ovechkin made him pay on the power play. Nicklas Backstrom hit Ovechkin just in front of his usual left-circle spot for a one-timer to make it 2-1. It was Ovechkin’s franchise-record 15th goal of the postseason.
At 12:56, Djoos and David Perron were wrestling for position at Holtby’s crease when Colin Miller took a shot. Tomas Tatar redirected it toward the net as Djoos and Perron fell into Holtby’s way. The goalie had no way to defend the play — the goal was credited to Perron as the puck skidded off his body — but a Washington challenge for goaltender interference failed and the game was tied again.
Near the end of the second, William Karlsson received a pass and was wide open in the Vegas offensive zone, and Ovechkin tripped him to prevent a goal. But it was in vain. The Golden Knights took the lead on the ensuing power play: Holtby defended a shot and Alex Tuch slapped the rebound left to Reilly Smith for an open shot behind Holtby.
Tuch and Brooks Orpik got into a scuffle behind the net immediately after the goal was scored, one that soon involved most players on the ice and took several minutes to sort out. Orpik, Jay Beagle, Tuch and Smith were assessed roughing minors.
The Capitals went back on the power play 5:37 into the third on a Tatar hooking call but failed to take advantage. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare stole an Ovechkin pass and had a solo breakaway against the captain, and Bellemare nearly took it the rest of the way to score.
But midway through the third, Orpik made one of his biggest plays of the season when he snagged a puck at the blue line and passed to Smith-Pelly in the crease. The fourth-line winger controlled the pass and wristed it past Fleury to the tie the game with his seventh goal of the postseason — matching his entire total from 75 regular season games. It was also his third straight game with a goal.
It wasn’t long before Eller put the Capitals back up for good. Brett Connolly took a shot that Fleury stoned, but the puck ended up just through the goalie’s legs and behind him. Eller popped in to push it over the goal line.
“Devo’s goal was huge, just a couple minutes before mine,” Eller said. “He’s been big all playoffs.”
Even as the game clock momentarily malfunctioned in the final two minutes, the Capitals finished the job and kept Vegas out of the net.
“The seconds were drunk on the scoreboard. They were going up, down, all around,” Tom Wilson said. “I was fortunate enough to be on for the last 30 (seconds) so I couldn’t watch, because it goes so slow when you’re on the bench watching.”
There is no perfect answer to the question reporters, fans and the greater hockey community have been asking for weeks on end: why this team, on paper less talented than in recent years, was on this run to a Stanley Cup. But a perfect answer isn’t necessary.
“Right from the beginning of the season, we didn’t know what kind of team we were gonna be. We just kept pushing forward,” Wilson said. “A little adversity here and there, a lot of fun times. That makes you the team you are at the end.”
“It doesn’t come easy. It took years,” Holtby said. “Years of heartbreak. 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.”