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Conference Final

Ovechkin enjoying run through first conference final with Capitals

Forward playing free, easy against Lightning after exorcising past second-round disappointments

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

TAMPA -- The expression of relief on Alex Ovechkin's face after the Washington Capitals finally defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round has been replaced by one of joy in the conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the NHL's final four for the first time in his 13-season career, Ovechkin is playing free and easy after having the weight of past Stanley Cup Playoff disappointments lifted off his shoulders. He had a goal and an assist in each of the first two games against the Lightning to help the Capitals take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-7 series.

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

Heading to Washington for Game 3 on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS), Ovechkin is looking forward to the Capitals' first conference final game at Capital One Arena since 1998.

"I can't wait to go home and play the game," Ovechkin said after Washington's 6-2 win in Game 2 on Sunday. "The fans are going to be all over the place and we're waiting for this moment for a long time. It's going to be pretty cool, very special."

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm2: Ovechkin buries Kuznetsov's setup

The Capitals captain appears to be savoring every moment of this run. After the Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy the past two seasons and were eliminated by the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs each time, the expectations were lower this season.

Despite the offseason departures of key veterans including forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, and defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt. the Capitals finished first in the Metropolitan Division for the third consecutive season. Ovechkin led the way with a League-high 49 goals and team-high 87 points.

Washington lost its first two games in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets before winning four straight to take that series in six games. Then it exorcised its demons against the Penguins in the second round by defeating them in six games.

Ovechkin had seven points (three goals, four assists) against the Penguins, including the winning goal in Game 3, and the primary assist on Jakub Vrana's game-winning goal in Game 5 and Evgeny Kuznetsov's series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6.

After Kuznetsov scored, Ovechkin raised his arms and looked up as if to say, "Finally." But instead of being satisfied, he and Capitals are playing with a determination that has them two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final.

"I think getting past that second round is a relief for him," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "I think beating Pittsburgh was a huge deal for him. We earned that. That's a good feeling for all of us."

That applies not just to Ovechkin, but most of the Capitals. Niskanen, defenseman Brooks Orpik and center Lars Eller are their only players who previously had played in a conference final.

Ovechkin is getting a lot of the attention now, like he did when Washington fell short of expectations in previous seasons. Although the 32-year-old forward is the premier goal-scorer of his generation with 607 in 1,003 regular-season NHL games, he often was reminded of the Capitals' inability to get past the second round in the playoffs.

"He's the face of the franchise and as the face of the franchise you get a lot of credit but you also get a lot of the blame," coach Barry Trotz said. "And because of that, I think at times it's taken the joy out of it."

There's plenty of joy in Ovechkin's game now. He leads Washington with 10 goals in the playoffs and he and Kuznetsov share the team lead with 19 points, two shy of Ovechkin's Capitals record for most points in a playoff year set in 2009.

"Knowing him, he's a competitive guy and he's taken some past failures pretty hard and he's not going to let this opportunity go to waste," Niskanen said. "He's bringing it. So, good for him. He's leading the way."

When the Lightning tried to get physical with the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Ovechkin on Sunday, he responded with a dominant performance, delivering five hits in addition to his goal, assist, seven shot attempts (four on goal) and a key block on a Victor Hedman shot.

"He's obviously having fun," Trotz said. "He's producing. He's all-in. We asked our group, if you're going to have success you have to have all-in contributions and he has. I think he's enjoying the run, the playoffs, maybe for the first time in a long time."

The Lightning have noticed too.

"I think he's taking (13) years of frustration out on one playoff season. He's taking it out on that," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "There's a reason he has 600 goals and he's done all of these wonderful things in the League. In the past, he's not had playoff success and when you do get to taste a little bit of it, it really tastes good."

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