LAS VEGAS (AP) — Alex Ovechkin put both hands to his head and screamed while he left the bench and skated into the thick of the Washington Capitals’ joyous celebration.
And right before Ovechkin hoisted the Stanley Cup, the Washington captain put both hands on his head again in a gesture of disbelieving ecstasy.
You can believe it, Ovi. So can the Washington fans whose championship drought is finally over.
After striving through 13 of his franchise’s 43 seasons, the Russian superstar and the long-suffering Capitals are sitting on top of hockey for the very first time.
“It doesn’t matter what happened before,” Ovechkin said through his gap-toothed grin. “We just won it.”
Lars Eller scored the tiebreaking goal with 7:37 to play, and the Capitals claimed their first NHL title with a 4-3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday night in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Ovechkin capped his playoff MVP campaign with an early power-play goal, and Devante Smith-Pelly tied it with a full-stretch goal midway through the final period of the Capitals’ fourth consecutive victory over the Golden Knights.
“We did it,” said Ovechkin, whose 15 playoff goals set a franchise record. “That’s all that matters. Look at the smiles on my teammates. This is something you’ll never forget. This moment, I’ll remember for the rest of my life. I’m so happy. It’s unbelievable.”
Vegas’ incredible expansion season finally ended, and so did the Capitals’ wait for a title since their debut in 1974. But after so many years of crushing disappointment for a team with a lengthy history of postseason failure, these Caps confidently won their fourth consecutive closeout game with a tenacious third-period comeback in Vegas.
Ovechkin and his teammates are Washington’s first championship hockey team — and their city’s first champion in a major pro sport since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in early 1992.
“It doesn’t come easy,” said goalie Braden Holtby, who made 28 saves while outplaying three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury in the opposite net one final time. “It took years. 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.”
After Ovechkin accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy, he received the Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. Ovechkin shouted “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” before skating away and hoisting the prize over his head for a victory lap in front of thousands of red-clad fans.
When a succession of teammates finally got the Cup back to Ovi, he handed it to Ted Leonsis, the Caps’ owner since 1999.
“I’m so happy for the group that has gone through the misery,” said Washington coach Barry Trotz, a first-time champ in his 19th season behind an NHL bench and a potential free agent without a contract for next season.
The Caps couldn’t win a Cup without a little late weirdness, however: The game clock stopped working on the T-Mobile Arena scoreboards during the final minutes, and the Capitals angrily protested while they played on. Vegas never got close to a tying goal despite both teams getting an extra chance to rest while the officials checked on the timing. The clock finally hit zeros, allowing the Caps to storm the ice behind their net for a frenzied celebration.
Reilly Smith scored a go-ahead goal late in the second period for the Golden Knights, who won seven of their first eight home playoff games before dropping the last two.
“When you get this close to the Cup, it’s hard,” Fleury said. “Doesn’t happen too often. It’s very disappointing.”
The defeat ended the storybook inaugural season of the Golden Knights, who became the NHL’s 31st franchise last fall and immediately launched into arguably the greatest debut in modern pro sports history. Few expected the division title they delivered, and fewer still thought Vegas could challenge for a championship.
Nate Schmidt and David Perron also scored deflection goals for Vegas in the second period, but Fleury’s 29 saves included a stopped puck that dropped underneath him where Eller could sweep it home for the Cup-winning goal.
“It means everything,” Eller said. “You couldn’t write the story better. If you’re going to win on the road, I couldn’t imagine a better place to do it.”
Forward T.J. Oshie spent a moment in the celebration looking up for his father, Tim, who he said was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“He doesn’t remember a lot of stuff, but he’s going to remember this,” Oshie said. “I’ve never seen a team come together like we did here. I’ve never seen the commitment from start to finish like we had here.”
Washington’s win was its 10th on the road in this postseason, tying the NHL playoff record and illustrating the superior toughness of this team. While past editions of the Caps created their team’s reputation for postseason flops in part by losing five playoff series in which they had won three of the first four games, Ovechkin’s latest group promptly closed out all four of its series this year on the very first try.
The Caps also came back from series deficits in all four rounds and clinched all four series on the road.
The remarkable Golden Knights hadn’t lost four consecutive games in their entire inaugural season before the Caps rolled them.
“It’s going to be a tough couple days,” Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland said. “You never want it to end like this.”
The Capitals had thousands of fans in the Vegas crowd and a building full of supporters watching back home along with countless thousands outside in the crowded D.C. streets. They got a barn-burner of a finale befitting this thrilling series, with wild shifts of momentum before that bizarre clock incident that didn’t appear to affect the outcome much.
The Capitals’ triumph also adds another chapter to a stretch of sweet relief for long-suffering, loyal sports fans across North America. The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl in February, and baseball’s Houston Astros won their first World Series last November.
First-time titles are all the rage, and Ovechkin and the Caps have paid their dues for this one.
Ovechkin, who turns 33 later this year, has been among the most exciting and productive players in his sport since joining the Caps in 2005. Yet for all of his goal-scoring prowess and athletic swagger, the Great Eight had never won an Olympic gold medal or a Stanley Cup title.
But after becoming the fifth player in the last quarter-century to score at least 15 goals in a postseason, Ovechkin is a champion at last. He also became the first Russian captain to raise the Cup in NHL history.
The title is also validation for Holtby, who has spent his entire NHL career in Washington. After several seasons of being measured unfavorably against Fleury and other goaltending greats despite his 2016 Vezina Trophy, the Saskatchewan native also has his long-sought ring — and his unbelievable stick save on Alex Tuch in Game 2 will ring forever in Caps history.
Ovechkin put the Caps up 2-1 in the crazy second period of Game 5 when he set up in his customary spot in the left faceoff circle and put Nicklas Backstrom’s cross-ice pass into a sliver of open net. But after Perron tied it with a deflection goal while falling into Holtby’s net, Smith scored into an open net after Ovechkin went to the penalty box for tripping.
Washington pressed early in the third, but didn’t connect until Brooks Orpik flung the puck at the net against the run of play. Smith-Pelly barely controlled the puck and stretched out to fling it toward the net while falling face-forward, and it slipped inside Fleury’s post for the veteran forward’s seventh goal of the postseason — matching his total from the entire regular season.
“I’ve been dreaming about it since I was a little kid,” Smith-Pelly said. “The team, with so much change, you didn’t know what to expect. We knew we could do something special, and we did.”
Moments later, the Knights struggled to keep up with the Caps’ puck movement and left Brett Connolly open for a shot. Fleury stopped it, but the puck fell to the ice underneath him — and Eller fought off Luca Sbisa and slapped the puck into the net for the game winner.
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