TAMPA, Fla. — “Names on a piece of paper don’t win.”
Matt Niskanen shared that observation with a cluster of reporters Tuesday, the day before Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. Niskanen said he told his wife before the season, “On paper, we’re not as good this year, but watch — this will be the year we do something.”
“Hockey’s a funny sport,” the defenseman shrugged.
The Washington Capitals may not have played their most complete game of the series Wednesday night. But again, hockey’s a funny sport.
With their 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena, the Washington Capitals advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final in 20 years. They will face the Vegas Golden Knights, starting Monday in Las Vegas.
Alex Ovechkin scored 62 seconds into the game and Andre Burakovsky added two goals in the second period. Braden Holtby made 29 saves for his second straight shutout, after previously failing to shut out an opponent all year.
The Lightning missed several wide-open opportunities to get on the board in the first two periods, while the Capitals took advantage of just enough of their chances.
A big believer in sports deities, Capitals coach Barry Trotz restated his opinion that when you play the right way, “the hockey gods even things out for you.”
“I’m really happy for this group. Playoffs are fun. They’re not not fun,” Trotz grinned. “They got to the next level and realized they’re not going to be defined by anything they’ve done or not done in the past. They wanted this game, there’s no question.”
Ovechkin will play for a Stanley Cup for the first time in his 13-year NHL career. He reflected on his journey to that moment, most of which was spent with longtime teammate Nicklas Backstrom.
“Since my third year we’ve been together and since first playoffs, I think me and him, Beags, we’ve been through everything. All the battles, all the playoffs, all the losses,” Ovechkin said. “It’s just emotion. Finally, we get what we want, to be in the Stanley Cup Final, but how I said, it’s still lots of hockey, still lots of energy and still lots of battles.”
He shook his head and motioned to Holtby seated next to him. “Just ask Holts,” he said, prompting some understanding laughter. “I’m kind of emotional. It’s hard to explain what I feel.”
Ovechkin did not slouch in the high-pressure moment. He scored on a one-timer on his line’s first shift. Tom Wilson passed behind him to Evgeny Kuznetsov near the high slot, and he kept the play moving left to Ovechkin’s “office.”
Ovechkin set a new career high for points in a single postseason with 22 on that play. Kuznetsov stretched his point streak to 10 games, with an NHL-best 24 points this postseason.
Devante Smith-Pelly dove low to block an Alex Killorn shot, but he took the puck in the back of the neck to the process and needed help leaving the ice. He would return to the game, but left the bench again before the end of the second period.
When Braydon Coburn ripped off Kuznetsov’s jersey during a scrum, Wilson launched into a fight with him, at one point punching Coburn’s helmet off. The two were assessed matching unsportsmanlike conduct minors, but they resumed their unfinished business two minutes later and finished the fight at center ice, with Wilson finally wrestling him to the ground before they took five more penalty minutes.
Anthony Cirelli had a chance to tie the game midway through the first. Holtby blocked a shot but left about half his net unprotected on the rebound — and Cirelli whiffed.
As Tampa Bay started to outshoot Washington early in the second, the Capitals benefitted from another whiff. The Lightning went on a 3-on-2 breakaway, and Victor Hedman maneuvered the puck behind Holtby when he stretched out. But Yanni Gourde simply missed the tap-in, and Brooks Orpik poked it out of danger.
It was that moment that Trotz was certain the bounces would go his team’s way Wednesday.
“Second period, when that puck was behind Braden and they (had a) tap-in and our guys got a stick on it and made it go south, I knew the hockey gods — I always talk about this all the time. The hockey gods will always reward you if you just stay with it and if you’ve earned it,” Trotz said.
Burakovsky doubled the lead halfway through the second period. Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi received a pass in the chest, and before he could settle it on the ice, Burakovsky stole it and wristed it across Vasilevskiy’s body, inside the far post.
With the puck near Tampa’s net, the Capitals lost track of Killorn, and he received an outlet pass and went on a breakaway. Holtby stonewalled him, further derailing the Lightning’s most open chances.
In the final minutes of the second, John Carlson sent a pass off the boards to Bukovsky, who was streaking into the offensive zone. He found Vasilevskiy’s five-hole for his second goal.
Because the Capitals scored first, they were able to dictate play, Carlson said.
“(The Lightning) had to take more chances. That’s when we have those execution plays to get pucks in his face, get 2-on-1s, 3-on-2s, breakaways,” Carlson said. “They were kind of coming in, their D I think one of them was changing and one of them was joining the attack. Just a little fumble, and that’s all it takes.”
The Capitals controlled everything from there. The Lightning didn’t put a shot on goal for almost 11 minutes to open the third period.
“I think today we all deserve the win. We know how good Tampa is and we don’t want to give them any chance,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody was very smart we don’t make mistakes in the third period. We don’t want to rush it.”
Backstrom added an insurance empty-netter as the game wound down. The veteran center said he would enjoy the win for a couple of days.
“I still can’t believe it. We worked so hard for this to be able to be in the finals and all it took was 11 years, but now we’re there,” he said. “So, it’s a great feeling, especially the way we did it, the way we played the game. It was outstanding from everybody.”
Washington entered Wednesday just 3-7 in Game 7s in the Ovechkin era. But that history continues to look like just that — history.