(Reuters) - The Washington Capitals won the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup for the first time in their 44-year history with a 4-3 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday.
The victory saw the Capitals clinch the best-of-seven championship series 4-1 in Las Vegas and brought an end to what had been a magical inaugural season for the Golden Knights.
Alex Ovechkin, the face of the Capitals franchise who for years bore the brunt of the blame for his team’s shortcomings, became the first Russian-born captain to hoist the Stanley Cup and was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the play-offs.
His message to fans was a simple one.
“Get some beers, get some whatever and start celebrating,” said Ovechkin, who until this year had never been beyond the midway mark of the playoffs. “We are Stanley Cup champions. Washington Capitals baby!”
Danish forward Lars Eller scored the winning goal with just under eight minutes left in regulation when he slammed home a puck sitting at the top of the Vegas crease after it had trickled through goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s legs.
“It means everything, you couldn’t write the story better. Getting to score the game winner,” said Eller. “If you are going to win on the road I could not imagine a better place to do it than right here.”
Vegas pulled their goalie in favor of an extra attacker with two minutes to play but Washington withstood the late charge.
After a tight first period the game opened up in the second as the two teams combined for five goals over a frenetic stretch of end-to-end action that saw Vegas twice erase one-goal deficits before pulling ahead 3-2.
Washington struck first, nearly seven minutes into the second period, when Czech forward Jakub Vrana scored on a breakaway with a wrist shot over Fleury’s left elbow.
The Golden Knights responded a little more than three minutes later when Nate Schmidt’s shot from the point redirected off Capitals defense man Matt Niskanen’s skate and into the net.
Ovechkin restored Washington’s lead 34 seconds later when he one-timed a cross-ice pass from Nicklas Backstrom over Fleury’s right leg for his franchise-record 15th goal of the playoffs.
The Golden Knights struck back less than three minutes later on a David Perron goal that the Capitals argued should have been disallowed for goalie interference. The referees let the goal stand after reviewing the play.
Vegas grabbed their first lead of the game with 29 seconds left in the period when Reilly Smith scored a powerplay goal into a wide open net with Capitals goalie Braden Holtby out of position and Ovechkin off serving a tripping penalty.
But the Golden Knights, who entered the game 10-0 in the playoffs when leading after two periods, were unable to hold the Caps at bay and the visitors tied the game midway through the third when Devante Smith-Pelly scored from in close as he was falling to the ice.
Eller then scored what proved to be the championship-deciding goal.
“In between the second and third we had the same feeling in our locker room, no one was panicking and everyone was confident,” said Holtby.
“I think we knew we could pick it up a level and everyone did an absolutely amazing job.”
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Peter Rutherford