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Capitals break through to make Stanley Cup Final

Shut out Lightning in Game 7 for first trip since 1998

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

TAMPA -- Alex Ovechkin had already gone through the handshake line and done a postgame television interview when he and Nicklas Backstrom came together and had their moment to enjoy what they and the Washington Capitals had achieved with their 4-0 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday.

Ovechkin and Backstrom embraced and said a few words about finally reaching the Stanley Cup Final, but not many were needed.

"You just have to look at each other," Backstrom said. "We've been waiting a long time for this, so now we're in the Final and we're going to do everything we can to do something special here for us, for the team and for the city."


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The Capitals will face the Vegas Golden Knights in the Final, which begins in Las Vegas on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS). Ovechkin and Backstrom have been working together toward this moment for 11 seasons as teammates. This is Ovechkin's 13th NHL season.

There have been quite a few bumps in the road along the way. Before this season, the Capitals had never advanced past the second round in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Now, they're in the Cup Final for the second time in franchise history (1998). The meaning of that to Ovechkin, 32, and Backstrom, 30, came through in their postgame hug.

Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Caps heading to Stanley Cup Final

"Me and him, since my third year, we've been together and since the first playoffs [in 2008] me and him and [Jay Beagle] have been through all the battles in the playoffs, all the losses," Ovechkin said. "It's just emotion. Finally, we get what we want, to be in the Stanley Cup Final. But it's still lots of hockey, still lots of energy, still lots of battles. But we're there."

Ovechkin struggled at times to find the words to express how he was feeling. No player has been taken more of the blame for Washington's past playoff failures than its captain.

So it was understandable that his emotions had him a bit tongue tied.

"We're going to the Stanley Cup Final," Ovechkin said. "I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished [business]. You know what I mean. I don't know, I'm emotional right now. I think we've been waiting for this moment for a long time. We understand what it has to take to be in the Final. You can see this game was unbelievable. Everybody was all in and we get the result."

Video: Ovechkin touches, holds Prince of Wales Trophy

The Capitals overcame a lot to reach this point. They lost the first two games of their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets at home before rebounding to win that series in six. Next, they knocked off their longtime nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins, in six games in the second round.

After winning the first two games against the Lightning, the Capitals lost three in a row and were facing elimination heading into Game 6 in Washington on Monday. They responded with their best two performances of the playoffs, winning 3-0 in Game 6 and following it up with another complete effort in Game 7.

With goaltender Braden Holtby posting consecutive shutouts, they did not allow a goal in the final 159:27 of the series (Holtby's streak is 157:13).

The Capitals had been 4-11 in their history in Game 7s, including 3-7 in the Ovechkin era. But Washington broke through that barrier as well, erasing all doubt that this team really is different from its predecessors. 

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm7: Holtby, Ovechkin on going to Cup Final

"I feel like everyone has been stepping up and we played like a team," Backstrom said. "I feel like we played more like a team this year than ever."

Ovechkin got the Capitals off to a great start Wednesday, scoring 62 seconds into the game with a one-timer from above the left circle that beat Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy under his right arm. 

"I saw it first shift," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "Ovi's been on a mission, He and [Evgeny Kuznetsov], they stepped up big time. Right off the bat you saw the commitment of guys blocking shots, taking hits."

But the Capitals were hanging on in the second period, getting outshot 8-1, before Andre Burakovsky capitalized on a turnover by Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi to score the first goal of his two goals at 8:59. His second came on a breakaway at 16:31 that extended the lead to 3-0.

Video: WSH@TBL, Gm7: Ovechkin buries scorching one-timer

That was more than enough support for Holtby, who finished with 29 saves. Backstrom sealed things with an empty-net goal with 3:43 left.

Backstrom admitted he doubted at times over the past 11 seasons whether this moment would come. Now, after all the heartache and disappointments, the Capitals are four wins from their first championship. 

"Eventually, you learn how to play in the playoffs and, obviously, it's all about bounces too," Backstrom said. "I felt like we deserved this one. We've been playing good this playoffs. We've been playing good as a team, the best I've ever seen us play. 

"So, we've just got to keep playing this way and go to Vegas."


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