EditorsNote: write-thru with quotes, details
When it comes to the Stanley Cup Final in Las Vegas, the house doesn’t always win.
The Washington Capitals spoiled what was otherwise a storybook season for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights with a 4-3 victory on Thursday night at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, winning the best-of-seven series 4-1 to claim the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s 44-year history.
Lars Eller’s rebound goal with 7:37 remaining broke a tie and proved to be the championship-winning tally. Eller outmuscled Vegas defender Luca Sbisa for the puck, which was fired at the net by Brett Connolly and squirted through the pads of Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury before it stopped on the edge of the crease. Eller then fired the rebound into the vacated net.
The Capitals captured the final four games of the series. They clinched all four of their playoff series (against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas) away from home and finished with 10 playoff road victories, tying the NHL single-season record.
“Beginning of the year I said we’re not going to suck, and you know we win the Stanley Cup, so that’s all that matters,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin told the NBC broadcast. “We won, and it doesn’t matter how we played or what happened before. We just win it.”
Ovechkin, who scored a goal Thursday, was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy, honoring the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The three-time Hart Memorial Trophy winner (regular-season MVP) had 15 goals and 12 assists in 24 postseason games. His goal total was a franchise single-season playoff record.
“It is unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “I don’t know what to say. It is just unbelievable. ... I’m so happy. I’m so happy for my teammates, for our fans back in Washington, my parents, my family, all my friends. ... it’s just unbelievable.”
Jakub Vrana and Devante Smith-Pelly added goals for Washington. Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, whose diving save of an Alex Tuch shot late in a 3-2 victory in Game 2 that was the turning point of the series, finished with 28 saves.
“I think any big play is going to be a turning point,” Holtby said. “But in saying that, it was a big play in the game, but the credit really goes to our guys, our coaching staff, everyone for keep moving forward. We didn’t get complacent once in this whole playoff. We kept pushing forward knowing that we could so something special, and we did.”
Reilly Smith had a goal and an assist, and Nate Schmidt and David Perron also scored for the Golden Knights. Marc-Andre Fleury made 29 saves for Vegas, which cruised to the Pacific Division title and then swept the Los Angeles Kings and before defeating the San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets en route to the Western Conference title.
The Golden Knights ended their surprise season with the first four-game losing streak in franchise history.
“We had an outstanding year, but it doesn’t feel like it right now,” Vegas coach Gerard Gallant said. “I didn’t talk to the team after the game. They didn’t want to hear me after the game. They were pretty disappointed and dejected obviously. You know, we worked hard. We competed hard. We just couldn’t beat that team.”
After a scoreless first period that featured a shot by Ovechkin than clanged off the right post, the teams traded four goals over the span of 6 1/2 minutes midway through the second period.
Vrana opened the scoring when he broke in alone off a nice outlet pass by Tom Wilson and fired a shot over Fleury’s glove for his third goal of the playoffs.
Schmidt tied it when his wrister from the high slot hit the skate of Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen and caromed through Holtby’s pads.
Washington regained the lead, 2-1, just 34 seconds later on a power-play goal by Ovechkin. He converted a crossing pass by Nicklas Backstrom with a one-timer from the edge of the left circle that bounced in off Fleury’s pad.
Perron then tied it, 2-2, with his first goal of the playoffs when Tomas Tatar’s redirect of a Colin Miller shot hit him just as he was shoved into the net by Washington defenseman Christian Djoos. The Capitals challenged that Perron, whose skate hit the back of Holtby’s right leg, had interfered on the play, but the goal stood.
With Ovechkin in the penalty box for tripping William Karlsson, Vegas then took its first lead just before the end of the middle period. Smith scored his fifth goal of the playoffs, firing in a shot into a wide-open left side of the net off a crossing pass by Alex Tuch.
Smith-Pelly, who scored the game-winning goal in Game 4, then tied it at the 9:52 mark of the third period. He stopped a pass from the blue line by Brooks Orpik with his skate in the slot and then beat Fleury with a wrist shot on his glove side while falling down to the ice. That set the stage for Eller’s game-winner.
The Golden Knights pulled Fleury for an extra attacker with 2:04 remaining. Backstrom missed a chance to seal it with 45 seconds left when he fired wide on the empty net from just inside the red line, but Vegas couldn’t find an equalizer.
“It was a phenomenal year, an unbelievable year,” Gallant said. “I know in a couple days we’ll feel real good about it, but anytime you see that Stanley Cup and you’re that close to it, it’s going to hurt for a while.”
—Field Level Media