For the second time in the history of the franchise, that phrase can be uttered. The Washington Capitals punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup final with a 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night, a performance that will go down in franchise history as perhaps the most dominant in a playoff game, ever.
The Capitals served notice early that it would be a long night for the host team. The three forwards on the top line played their assigned roles right out of the gate. Tom Wilson nailed Chris Kunitz in the neutral zone to force a turnover, the puck gathered up by Evgeny Kuznetsov, who fed it back to Wilson heading up ice. Wilson curled into the offensive zone, and from the right wing wall dropped the puck back to Kuznetsov trailing. Kuznetsov pivoted and fed the puck across to Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer that appeared to get nicked on the way through by the stick of defenseman Anton Stralman. The ever so slight redirection was enough to elude goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was poised to collect the puck in his jersey logo, only to see it sail past his blocker to make it 1-0 just 62 seconds into the contest. It would be the only goal of the first period.
As the game moved to the mid-way point, one had the feeling that the next team to score would grab the momentum for good. How the Caps did it was especially deflating for the Lightning. With three Lightning players clogging the wall in front of the penalty boxes, Lars Eller was the Capital who took possession of the puck, turning and feeding Andre Burakovsky gliding through the neutral zone. Burakovsky did not receive the puck cleanly, but he did manage to poke it off the stick of defenseman Dan Girardi, breaking behind the defenseman to break in alone on Vasilevskiy. Burakovsky snapped the puck from in close over the right pad of the goalie, and the Caps had a 2-0 lead 8:59 into the second period.
Burakovsky did it again eight minutes later. While the Lightning were trying to execute a line change, John Carlson swatted the puck off the boards in his own end, Burakovsky collecting the puck at the red line. With the Lightning slow to make their changes, Burakovsky broke in alone on Vasilevskiy and snapped the puck between his pads to make it a 3-0 game at the 16:31 mark. The teams went to the dressing room after 40 minutes with the Caps holding a commanding advantage.
The last 20 minutes could not go fast enough for Caps fans, but for the Caps on the ice it was a matter of clamping down on the Lightning and preventing chances. They did just that (Tampa Bay did not record their first shot on goal until the 10:56 mark of the period), and with the clock winding down, the Lightning were forced to pull Vasilevskiy for an extra attacker with just over four minutes left. Less than 30 seconds later, the Caps thrust the dagger into the Lightning season. Jay Beagle battled behind the Tampa Bay net and fished the puck out to the blue paint where Nicklas Backstrom batted it into the open net, and the scoring was complete, the Caps skating into the final with a 4-0 victory.
-- Earl Robertson’s name is largely lost in the annals of NHL history, but he is the last goaltender to pitch consecutive shutouts in elimination games in Stanley Cup history before Braden Holtby did it in Games 6 and 7 in this series. Robertson did the deed in 1937 for the Detroit Red Wings, not having played a single regular season game in the NHL that season. Stranger still, the six games Robertson played for the Wings backstopping them to the Cup were the only ones he ever played for Detroit. He was traded to the New York Americans after that season.
-- If there was a word to describe this game and this series for the Caps, it might be “redemption.” There was Holtby redeeming himself after starting the postseason on the bench, but there was also Lars Eller. After a difficult few games in this series, Eller put together his second straight solid game. A liberal scorer might have given him an assist on the first Burakovsky goal. He led the team with five shots on goal, and he had two takeaways and two credited hits. He won seven of 13 draws and finished plus-2 in just under 18 minutes of ice time.
-- Continuing that redemption theme, there was Andre Burakovsky. Intermittently benched in this postseason, he scored those two breakaway goals to cement the win. It was his third career multi-goal game, potting a pair against the Rangers in 2015 and repeating the effort against the Penguins in 2017.
-- It only seems fitting that for Alex Ovechkin, it was his eighth career game-winning goal in the postseason.
-- Every year, someone writes another chapter in the “Hockey Players Are the Toughest” history. This year, the chapter gets written by Nicklas Backstrom. If you saw the post-game handshake line, there was Backstrom shaking hands with his left hand, his right hand still injured. But he had the empty-net goal, won nine of 17 draws, and finished plus-1.
-- John Carlson… 25 minutes, an assist, two shots on goal, five blocked shots, two credited hits, and a plus-3.
-- Dmitry Orlov led the team with 25:40 in ice time and was a plus-2.
-- The Caps led the credited hits totals in Game 6, 39-19, largely a case of peeling Lightning players off the puck and taking possession. Tampa Bay returned the favor, to a point, in Game 7, recording 46 hits to 27 for the Caps. Sometimes, it does not have the desired effect, though.
-- The Caps were opportunistic, to say the least. If we wrote only this sentence – “the Caps had 23 shots on goal for the game, Alex Ovechkin, Lars Eller, and Evgeny Kuznetsov combining for 13 of them” – you might have thought the Caps lost.
-- Kuznetsov extended his points streak with an assist on the Ovechkin goal. At ten straight games with a point, Kuznetsov owns the franchise record.
In the end…
The “final” frontier…where no Capital has gone before. Well, in 20 years, anyway. For the second time in team history, the Capitals will be playing hockey in June. This game was unlike any other the Caps have played in their postseason history. An elimination game that they grabbed by the throat and held onto for 60 minutes. They never really let Tampa Bay breathe. The stars – Alex Ovechkin and Nickas Backstrom in particular – took over. They had the “hot goalie.” Alex Ovechkin was the one on the bench after the second Andre Burakovsky goal screaming, “that’s my boy!” They were the ones getting the empty-net goal in the end to silence the home crowd for the last time. They were the back-slapping celebrants at the end of the game.
And with that said, we will gladly eat a plate of crow. We proclaimed this era “dead” after the Caps lost to the Penguins last May. But this team has put together a season to be remembered and celebrated. On paper, not as good as previous clubs, but one with a winning chemistry not seen in more than four decades of Caps history. There is much work yet to be done against a formidable opponent, but for now – tonight – just take it all in. This is a game, a series, and a season to savor.