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Ovechkin gets first taste of Eastern Final, Capitals eliminate Penguins

Assists on Kuznetsov's OT goal in Game 6 to break Pittsburgh hex

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Alex Ovechkin was the last player in the line for the Washington Capitals and Sidney Crosby was first for the Pittsburgh Penguins, so it took awhile for their paths to cross.

Their roles were reversed this time after the Capitals' 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Monday put them into the conference final for the first time in 20 years.

 

[RELATED: Capitals defeat Penguins in Game 6, advance to Eastern Conference Final |  Complete Capitals vs. Penguins series coverage]

 

After a handshake of respect and a friendly pat on the chest, Crosby offered his best wishes and they each moved on. 

"Just wished me good luck," Ovechkin said. "I've been in [his] position lots of times."

Ovechkin, 32, has waited 13 seasons for this. Three times, including each of the past two seasons, Crosby and the Penguins ended the season for the Capitals and Ovechkin had to wish them good luck. Then he watched Pittsburgh go on to win the Stanley Cup.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Ovechkin on eliminating the Penguins

Now it's the Capitals who have advanced; they'll face the Tampa Bay Lightning and continue the chase for their first Stanley Cup championship. Game 1 is at Tampa Bay on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS)

"Nobody expected we were going to be in this position before this season, in this game and in this playoffs," Ovechkin said. "We beat the twice Stanley Cup champion, and it gives us a pretty good feeling about ourselves."

It seemed fitting that Ovechkin and Crosby were on opposite sides of the winning goal, scored on a breakaway by Evgeny Kuznetsov 5:27 into overtime. Pressured from behind by Kuznetsov, Crosby lost the puck inside the Washington blue line.

Ovechkin picked it up, skated into the neutral zone and pushed a pass ahead on his backhand to Kuznetsov. The forward raced, splitting defensemen Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, got goaltender Matt Murray to open his pads with a backhand deke, and slid the puck into the net to finally lift the Penguins' hex off the Capitals.

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Kuznetsov ends series with OT winner

"We got a turnover and then it's good transition, it's a breakaway." Kuznetsov said. "When you get a breakaway in those type of games, you don't really think what you're going to do. You're just trying to do something. It's worked pretty well."

The Penguins won nine of the previous 10 Stanley Cup Playoff series between the rivals and were 9-1 when facing elimination against the Capitals. Washington's lone series victory came in six games in the 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

In the Ovechkin-Crosby era, which began when they entered the NHL in 2005-06, the Capitals were 0-6 when they were within one win of reaching the conference final. So when Ovechkin saw Kuznetsov finish his breakaway and the Pittsburgh crowd went silent, his reaction was understandable.

"Thank God this happened," Ovechkin said when asked for his first thought. "We move forward, and now I can't wait for when is going to be the next game and get ready for Tampa [Bay]."

The Capitals have three players who have played in a conference final: center Lars Eller and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. Even though Ovechkin had plenty of company in the Capitals locker room, as captain he became the face of their second-round failures.

Video: Discussing the Caps' Game 6 OT win over the Penguins

No matter how many goals he's scored in the regular season (607) or in the playoffs (54), Ovechkin was always reminded that he couldn't get past the second round.

"Takes a little bit of a beating every time," Capitals center Jay Beagle said. "But he has always been good in playoffs, has always been our rock, our captain. Has played unreal this playoffs, and this series and we look for that going forward."

Ovechkin has 15 points (eight goals, seven assists) in 12 playoff games, including seven (three goals, four assists) in six games against the Penguins. He scored the winning goal in a 4-3 victory in Game 3 and set up Jakub Vrana's winner in a 6-3 victory in Game 5 before setting up Kuznetsov's overtime goal Monday.

"The people that are going to say something about Alex, I don't think he worries about them," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "Alex's place in history is pretty set, and now he's said that he doesn't care about individual accolades. He wants the team to win. I think you saw that. You saw how hard he hustled, he threw the big pass for the win. That's a moment that says how he's arrived as a player."

Ovechkin is known for his offense, but coach Barry Trotz said he spoke with him Monday morning about his defense. Without Nicklas Backstrom (upper-body injury), Tom Wilson (suspended) and Andre Burakovsky (upper-body injury), the Capitals were missing three of their top six forwards. To defeat the Penguins on Monday, they needed to play a patient, tight defensive game. Trotz, who also reached a conference final for the first time in his NHL career, asked Ovechkin to lead the way in doing that.

"We believe in each other," Ovechkin said. "The situation is it doesn't matter what happened. We have to stick together. We knew it's there. We just have to battle and we just have to fight through it. It's a great feeling right now, and we're going forward."

***

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