The question keeps getting raised, “Why did the Capitals win the Stanley Cup this year, when in years past they had better talent and were considered the best team in the league?” With each early exit from the playoffs, the organization would tinker with players, coaches, playing style and the result would always fall short. So what was different in this playoff run? There are many intangibles so I’ll simplify it in Christmas Carol terms. The “ghosts of the Capitals past, present and future” combined into a Stanley Cup win.
The ”ghost of the Capitals past” was evident in the first two rounds. Interestingly, if you watch the shows that chronicle the Stanley Cup run, the footage from the Blue Jackets and Penguins series look like they were played a year or two ago. The first round narrative seemed the same; Capitals lose the first two home games, Ovechkin guarantees they will return home tied, several games take overtime to decide, the Capitals come back from adversity only to meet the dreaded Penguins in the second around, again. While some fans were pumped with the comeback, many had a wait-and-see attitude about the second round.
The Penguins series had the familiar feel of animosity, overtime wins, controversy, injuries, and the back and forth swings of momentum. Even with the Capitals game 5 win, most expected the series to go seven games and then anything could happen. However, the script changed. The Kuznetsov goal in game 6 transformed this team and its fan base into something new. There were lots of phrases being thrown around, “demons were exorcised”, “monkeys off the back”, what have you, there was a collective sigh of relief for anyone connected to the Capitals. While the city was criticized for going overboard for the win and reminded we haven’t really won anything, that breakthrough past the second round and in particular, against the Penguins,changed everything.
After the Penguin series there were no more overtime games. There was a viewing party in Arlington for game 1 against Tampa and we began to see the “ghost of the Capitals present”. There was energy, excitement and a hopefulness that something good was going to happen. The first two wins on the road felt like a momentum that couldn’t be stopped. Then, the Capitals lose three games in a row. Even though the social media trolls came out with their “choke” posts and frustration was evident, it didn’t have the feel of the past. The team was clearly on the ropes, but it didn’t feel desperate. Game 6 was one of the best games I have ever seen this team play. They buckled down and played an all-around physical, defensive and team-oriented game. It wasn’t about determination or “wanting it more” than Tampa, they were just as determined and wanting to finish it; it was about grit. How many other times, even last year, did they win a game 6, only to falter in game 7? It didn’t happen this time because of one defining moment in game 7, the Tom Wilson fight.
Fights are no longer the norm in playoff games because they can be too costly and the margin for error is so small. If scraps do happen, it’s usually because of frustration and being beaten badly or at the end of the game when it doesn’t really hurt the team but sends a message. Wilson and Coburn received unsportsmanlike penalties with 7 minutes left to go in the first period. After serving the penalties, they come out and fight like the “Old Time Hockey” in the 1980s. The game was still in the balance, removing Wilson from the game would be in Tampa Bay’s favor, yet Wilson felt it was necessary and it was. Hockey has changed so much since the 1980s when I first started watching it. Now, it is more corporate, about salaries, superstars, and a product. In that moment when Wilson and Coburn continued their fisticuffs, Wilson brought the game back to its roots. Not because of the physicality, but for what mattered, his teammate, his team and winning. The game was not the same after that. The team demonstrated that same grit and bond for each other to decisively win that game to transport them into the Stanley Cup final.
Now we come the “ghost of the Capitals future’. The Stanley Cup final with the Vegas Golden Knights had some interesting story lines on both sides but commentators seemed to favor Vegas for a number of reasons, one of which was Fleury, and old familiar foe of the Caps. However, the Capitals had their own story to write. They were not the same team they were in April when the playoffs began. When the Capitals lost game 1 to Vegas, there was no panic, no doubt, no history repeating itself. After Holtby’s save in game 2, this team dominated the rest of the series. They exhibited unselfish play; all players, older and younger, contributed and understood their role. There was physicality, finesse, defense, offense, emotion, fun and a will to win. The fans too changed since April. They went from watching the games at local bars, saying “here we go again, same old Caps”, to viewing parties that filled Capital One Arena to capacity and thousands more fans watching on F street. Fans from all eras joined with those newcomers to embrace and experience the amazing transformation of this team unfold before their eyes. So you see, it’s not a simple answer of x’s and o’s to explain the Stanley Cup win. The past and present were evident and it made the Championship and the future of this team so much brighter.
By Andrea Schlegel