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Stanley Cup Final

Capitals showing why they're different during run to Stanley Cup Final

Commitment to defense, team concept separate 2018 Eastern Conference champions from seasons past

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

TAMPA -- For so many years, Nicklas Backstrom had to answer the questions about what went wrong for the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So in the aftermath of their 4-0 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Wednesday, the Capitals center seemed to be savoring the opportunity to talk about what has gone right.

 

[RELATED: Complete Golden Knights vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

Washington has reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998 and the second time in its history, and will play the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"It's always easier to talk about something positive than to come up with something negative," Backstrom said. "That's obviously a great feeling."

Why this team succeeded when others before it failed isn't an easy question to answer. As Backstrom conceded, some bounces have gone the Capitals' way. 

Victor Hedman's left point shot that deflected off the skate of Washington center Lars Eller and hit the left post with the Capitals leading 1-0 in the second period Wednesday was one example. 

But it has been a lot more than luck that has gotten the Capitals within four wins of their first championship after not advancing beyond the second round since they made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance 20 years ago. Since the Alex Ovechkin-Backstrom era Capitals made their first playoff appearance in 2008, they've experienced more than their share of heartache.

Video: Jaffe and Pang recap Game 7 of the ECF

They won the Presidents' Trophy three times -- in 2010 (first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens), and 2016 and 2017 (second-round losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins) -- and those teams couldn't do what this one has done.

"It's just the way it works sometimes, I guess," Backstrom said. "I wish I could tell you in the previous series we were in [why] we had a better team on paper and we couldn't do it. But I feel like this team is playing the best hockey I've ever seen the Caps [play]. At least in my 11 years, that's the best I've seen us play."

To get to the why, you need to go back to a closed-door locker room meeting after a 6-2 loss at the Colorado Avalanche on Nov. 16. That followed a similar 6-3 loss at the Nashville Predators on Nov. 14 and left the Capitals 10-9-1 through their first 20 games.

Until then, coach Barry Trotz tried to give his players some space to work out among themselves their lingering disappointment from failing to get past the Penguins in the second round last season. That team was supposed to represent Washington's best chance of winning the Stanley Cup and it fell flat in a 2-0 home loss to Pittsburgh in Game 7.

The internal struggle over that failure carried over into this season and was threatening to ruin it. In the final season of his contract and unsure how much more time he had, Trotz decided to lay it all on the table during that meeting in Colorado and called out many of Washington's top players.

"I didn't know if they were going to respond or not," Trotz said Wednesday. "It was one of those hard talks as a coach that you have with your group. It was very honest, it was very straightforward, and when we got back home we played one of our best games."

Beginning with a 3-1 home win against the Minnesota Wild on Nov. 18, the Capitals went 17-4-2 in their next 23 games. They finished 49-26-7 and first in the Metropolitan Division for the third consecutive season.

"We weren't going to grow unless we just sort of cleared the air a little bit," Trotz said. "I use the word 'stink' in the air that we had in our room and it needed to get out. A lot of that was the result of last year, and we got it out and that allowed us to grow. And you have no chance to grow if those things didn't come to light to them and they didn't accept it."

Video: Discussing Burakovsky's two goals in Game 7

Fast forward to the third period Wednesday with the Capitals leading 3-0 and holding the desperate Lightning without a shot on goal for the first 10:56. This is the kind of committed defensive team Washington has become with its 1-1-3 neutral-zone system.

After taking a 3-0 lead 33 seconds into the second period of their 3-2 win in Game 5, Tampa Bay didn't score another goal in the series. After not earning a shutout this season, goaltender Braden Holtby made 24 saves in a 3-0 win in Game 6 and 29 in Game 7.

"I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win," Holtby said. "Maybe in the past we've had more skill, were better on paper or whatever, but this team everyone knows their role. … I haven't been on a team like this where in any situation we're confident and we're confident in each other."

That begins with Ovechkin. The captain is expected to provide offense and he has. His 12 playoff goals, including one 1:02 into the game Wednesday, lead the Capitals, and his 22 points (12 goals, 10 assists) are second behind Evgeny Kuznetsov's NHL-leading 24 (11 goals, 13 assists).

But almost as valuable has been Ovechkin's commitment to the team game. He has set a physical tone, leading the Capitals again with five hits in Game 7, and like everyone else has sacrificed his body to block shots. He had one of their 15 blocks Wednesday.

"Everybody was all in," Ovechkin said. "Everybody was in the shot lanes. Everybody sacrificed their bodies. That's all it takes, the little details, the little things, give emotion at different times. I think today we all deserved the win."

Video: Capitals topple Lightning in seven, head to Cup Final

Holtby nodded his head in agreement when Ovechkin listed those elements of the Capitals' success. The truth is, he probably couldn't have said the same about their past teams that didn't get this far.

This collection of players truly is in it together and doesn't want this run to end.

"We talked about that we're just trying to earn the right to keep playing, this trip that we're on, each series, that we enjoy this group," Trotz said. "That's probably the biggest bond. They just don't want to get separated."

***

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