TORONTO -- The Washington Capitals were laughing and smiling in their locker room at Air Canada Centre on Sunday, and owner Ted Leonsis was kissing overtime hero Marcus Johansson on the cheek and hugging Alex Ovechkin.
There was good reason to celebrate after the Capitals finally finished off the young Toronto Maple Leafs with a series-clinching 2-1 overtime win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference First Round. But as satisfying as it was, it was also clear the Capitals merely viewed it as the first step of four they hope to take in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The next step, a date with the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round, is one they've been waiting for and working toward for nearly a year. The best-of-7 series, which begins at Verizon Center on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports) is the shot at redemption the Capitals have been seeking since losing to the Penguins in six games in the second round last season.
[RELATED: Complete Maple Leafs vs. Capitals series coverage]
"We're ready. We're excited. We can't wait to get going," said Johansson, who scored both Capitals goals, including the winner 6:31 into overtime. "We've worked hard for it. We've worked all year and all summer to get back into this position, and now we're here."
The Capitals were determined that nothing was going to deny them of this opportunity. They also were determined not to let this first-round series reach a Game 7, which would have been played in Washington on Tuesday.
Video: WSH@TOR, Gm6: Johansson sneaks home puck to tie game
The Maple Leafs gave the Capitals all they could handle, pressuring them relentlessly with their speed and their talented young players such as Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitchell Marner. They stood toe-to-toe with them through six one-goal games, including five that required overtime (tying the NHL record for most overtime games in a series).
The Capitals didn't want any part of playing the Maple Leafs again on Tuesday. That's why coach Barry Trotz talked Saturday about the importance of having a killer instinct, saying, "You get an opportunity to push someone off a cliff, you need to push them off if you can."
The Maple Leafs tried to fight them off, but the Capitals dug in and eventually were able to shove them over the edge.
"They pushed us and they hardened us this series," Trotz said.
When Matthews took advantage of a fortunate bounce off the glass to give the Maple Leafs a 1-0 lead 7:45 into the third period on Sunday, it appeared the series was destined to go seven games. But after talking earlier in the series about all the bounces that had gone against them, the Capitals' mindset did not waver.
"It was that break isn't going to kill us, that break isn't going to be the game-winner on that bounce off the boards," right wing Justin Williams said. "And it wasn't."
As well as Maple Leafs goaltender Frederik Andersen played, frustrating the Capitals by making glove save after glove save, they kept pushing. They were rewarded when Johansson found a small opening on the short side and the puck caromed off the post before trickling over the goal line to tie the game at 1-1 with 7:09 left in regulation.
"They scored on a lucky bounce and when the puck goes to a player like Matthews, he's dangerous and he put it in," Ovechkin said. "But after that we don't panic, we stay focused, we stay the same, we stay on the same program that we want to do .We had pretty good chances after that and finally [Johansson] scored and tied it.
"After that, we knew if we're going to play the same way, we feel they're tired. We know their D don't want to go back. They don't want to take it back. We just pressured and pressured and get a result."
The Maple Leafs torched the Capitals on faceoffs for most of the game, winning 64 percent. But after Maple Leafs center Brian Boyle iced the puck 6:24 into overtime, Trotz sent the line of Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Williams out for the ensuing faceoff in the right circle in the Maple Leafs end.
Video: WSH@TOR, Gm6: Johansson clinches series win in OT
After tying up sticks with Boyle on the draw, Kuznetsov kicked the puck back to John Carlson at the right point. Carlson fed Williams, who fired a slap shot from the top of the right circle that Johansson tipped in front. Andersen made a right pad save, but Johansson was there to knock in the rebound for the first playoff overtime goal of his career.
"We just wanted to get control of the puck on the faceoff so they'd have to stay out there," Johansson said. "[Kuznetsov] did a great job with it, and [Williams] found me going to the back side. I just got lucky to get a stick on it and get the rebound in."
That set off the Capitals celebration in the right corner. It carried over into the locker room, but slowly the focus shifted to the task that awaits the Capitals later this week.
It will be a matchup of the NHL's top two teams during the regular season. The Capitals finished first in the League standings with 118 points; the Penguins were second with 111.
The Capitals won the Presidents' Trophy, but the Penguins have what they want most.
"We're going on to play the Stanley Cup champions," Trotz said. "They had a wonderful season. They had a lot of injuries and we didn't pass them really or really pull away from them until the last week of the season, so we know how good they are.
"They knocked us out last year, so we get a chance to go back at them."