Across their 43 seasons, the Washington Capitals dabbled in hapless hockey and exquisite hockey, boring hockey and effective hockey, but never had they played winning hockey through four playoff rounds, all the way to a grueling, glorious end.
It took a team hardened by postseason failures but liberated from high expectations to complete a run as dazzling as it was cathartic, capping it on Thursday night by dispatching the upstart Vegas Golden Knights, 4-3, to win the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
It was the Capitals’ fourth consecutive victory in the finals after a disorienting 6-4 loss in the opener that made little sense in the context of how they played immediately before and afterward. After twice shutting out the offensive powerhouse Tampa Bay Lightning to advance to its first Cup finals since 1998, Washington outscored the Golden Knights across these last four games by 16-8.
Lars Eller scored the winning goal with 7 minutes 27 seconds remaining, jamming in a loose puck that had slid through Marc-Andre Fleury’s pads and rested at the top of the crease behind him. The Capitals’ bench erupted, and Eller hopped away as if dancing.
The party started in earnest when the buzzer sounded and the Capitals’ bench emptied and swarmed goalie Braden Holtby, who provided the iconic moment of the finals late in Game 2 here, when he lunged across the crease to stop an unstoppable puck and preserve a one-goal lead. Alex Ovechkin zipped onto the ice, his helmet off and his hands on his head, no longer labeled the best player to have never won a championship.
Ovechkin, awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player, struggled to conjure words in an interview with NBC on the ice immediately after the win, and then again when surrounded by the news media. When Ovechkin hoisted the Cup, he released a primal scream.
“It’s even better,” said Ovechkin, who joined Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr as the only players to win a Conn Smythe and three Hart Trophies, which are awarded to the regular-season M.V.P. “It’s just like a dream.”
The Capitals outlasted Vegas with the same elements that propelled them past Columbus, their nemesis Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay: stifling neutral-zone defense, superb goaltending by Holtby and waves of prolific talent headlined by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov. Unlike past Washington teams puffed with stars that collapsed in the playoffs, this group conveyed a certain resilience that infused their play, in games and throughout series.
“We never make it easy, do we?” defenseman Matt Niskanen said.
Even on Thursday, Washington blew two leads in a frenetic five-goal second period that ended with Vegas ahead by 3-2. But Devante Smith-Pelly evened the score on a diving goal at 9:52 of the third before Eller assured that these Capitals would become the second team to win the Cup after trailing in every round, joining the Penguins of 1991.
That same year, the Washington Redskins embarked on an N.F.L. season that ended with Super Bowl glory. None of the Washington area’s major professional franchises (apologies, D.C. United) had won a championship since, and no team since the Capitals in 1998 had even advanced to the conference finals, let alone the last round. That’s even more remarkable considering some of the sporting luminaries who have played there: Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, Clinton Portis, John Wall, Michael Jordan. The hockey team alone in the last two decades featured Adam Oates, Jaromir Jagr and Sergei Fedorov.
But along came the Russian stars Ovechkin and Kuznetsov, backed by a robust supporting cast that matched offensive prowess with discipline, structure and tenacity. Ovechkin, who scored the Capitals’ second goal Thursday, embodied the two-way commitment demanded by Coach Barry Trotz, blocking shots and delivering checks, in a transformative season.
After leading the league in regular-season goals (49), Ovechkin led the league in postseason goals (15). He finished these playoffs with 27 points, just behind Kuznetsov, who had 32, which was the most since his fellow Russian Evgeni Malkin had 36 for Pittsburgh in 2009.
The team’s captain and longest-tenured player, Ovechkin, 32, has spent all 13 seasons of his transcendent career with the team, which drafted him first over all in 2004. He has endured more disappointment than anyone else on the Capitals.“He probably took the brunt of the criticism just because he’s the captain and the highest-paid guy,” said defenseman Brooks Orpik. “I think a lot of guys feel for him in that situation. If you watched the reaction of his teammates when he got the Cup, I think it speaks volumes about how guys feel about him.”
George McPhee — the general manager who selected Ovechkin and constructed Washington’s spine, from Backstrom to John Carlson to Kuznetsov to Holtby — moved on to assemble in Vegas the most successful first-year franchise in major North American sports history. Vegas romped to a Pacific Division title and burned through the Western Conference bracket, losing only three times in its first 16 playoff games.
Facing elimination on Thursday, the Golden Knights confronted their predicament with defiance. Opening their pregame festivities, a video implored fans not to give up — if the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016 and the New England Patriots in 2017 could overcome imposing deficits, then so, they hoped, could Vegas.
“After you get past the losing here, you can look back and be pretty proud of the group in here and what they’ve done getting into this community and the city after what happened, and the run we went on,” said Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland, referencing the mass shooting here on Oct. 1 that strengthened the Golden Knights’ bond with the city. “Everyone had us pegged to not make the playoffs. To be standing here today, as bad as it feels, you’ve got to be proud of the group in here.”
In contrast to these Golden Knights, the Capitals compiled in their expansion season of 1974-75 what is still regarded as the worst season in league history: an 8-67-5 record worth 21 points. The franchise matured into a perennial contender, and for more than a decade Washington has been one of the N.H.L.’s top teams, winning its division eight times in 11 seasons and making 10 postseason appearances over all in that span.
Each of those playoff forays had been defined, in one way or another, by calamitous defeat: to eighth-seeded Montreal in 2010; in seven games to the Rangers in 2012, 2013 and 2015; in consecutive series to Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017, despite finishing with the most points in the league both seasons. In the Ovechkin era, the Capitals have twice bungled three-games-to-one leads, and before vanquishing Tampa Bay last month, they had lost seven of 10 Game 7s.
“Years past, it felt like we were like, ‘We’re going to win this year,’” forward T.J. Oshie said. “This year, it was more so like, ‘We’re going to work this year, and we’re going to outwork teams. We’re going to play longer than they are.’ And we did that. We did that throughout the whole playoffs.”
Oshie spoke in a stream of consciousness, at one point apologizing for rambling. When he finally found his family on the ice, he cradled one of his daughters and told her, “We won the trophy!”
All around him in the stands were hundreds of Capitals fans, if not more, who assembled an hour before face-off, chanting, “Let’s go, Caps!” Clad in red, they soon filled in sections in the upper and lower bowls, forming a far larger presence than they had in either of the first two games here, and it seemed like half of T-Mobile Arena stood and screamed joyously after Eller scored.
“It took years,” said Holtby, whom the owner Ted Leonsis called the team’s playoff M.V.P. afterward. “Years of heartbreak. Years of breaking things down and trying again, breaking things down and trying again, and this group never gave up and we finally did it.”
Trotz has discussed the Capitals’ postseason struggles openly, often comparing his teams to others that foundered before winning, like the Islanders dynasty of the early 1980s and the Detroit Red Wings of the mid-1990s.
“All of these experiences,” Trotz said recently, “help you find out how much you can take and how much you can give.”
For years, the Capitals took and took and gave and gave, and now, with nothing more to take and nothing left to give, there is but one thing left for them to do: celebrate.