PITTSBURGH – It took 13 seasons and 10 trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Alex Ovechkin is, at long last, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Thank God this happened,” Ovechkin said shortly after the Washington Capitals eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in their second-round series Monday night.
Six of Ovechkin’s nine previous trips to the postseason ended with a second-round exit. On three of those occasions, including the last two springs, the Capitals fell to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Penguins.
“It’s almost embarrassing that it’s taken this long to get past it,” said team owner Ted Leonsis, who bought the Capitals in 1999, one year after they last made it past the second round.
Back when the Capitals first reached the playoffs in the Alex Ovechkin era, the possibilities seemed endless. Yes, they were bounced in the first round in 2008, but surely deep postseason runs would follow the uber-talented group that could score goals in bunches. For nearly a decade they never came.
Coaches came and went, systems changed, veterans with Stanley Cup rings were brought in. But a deep playoff run remained elusive. Six times the Ovechkin-led Capitals were one win away from advancing to the third round. Six times, they fell short.
“It’s so hard to move forward sometimes,” said head coach Barry Trotz, who is advancing to the conference finals for the first time in his 19-year NHL head coaching career.
“It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns, and he’s a great player in this league…I knew the frustration because you’re so close and you just can’t get it, and you just gotta stay with it.”
With years of premature playoff exits having piled up, this wasn’t a monkey the Capitals got off their collective backs Monday. This was an entire band of gorillas.
“It feels great,” Ovechkin said after assisting on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime game winner. “I’ve never been in this position before and I’m looking forward.”
When Ovechkin made that postseason debut in April 2008, he was a bushy-haired 22-year-old and the third youngest player in the Washington lineup. A franchise record 109 playoff games later, there was Ovechkin Monday in Pittsburgh, a gray-haired 32-year-old and the second oldest player on the team.
“Nobody expected we were going to be in this position before this season, in this game and in these playoffs,” Ovechkin said. “We beat the twice Stanley Cup Champion and it gives us pretty good feeling about ourselves.”
“It’s great for the whole organization,” said Jay Beagle, the third-longest tenured player with the organization.
Soon after Game 6, Beagle lauded the Capitals’ depth. Washington won despite playing without injured forwards Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky, as well as the suspended Tom Wilson.
“It’s great for the coaching staff that put in all the work. It’s great for everyone. It’s a long time coming, and to get it done in the way we did in Game 6 and missing three of our top six guys, having guys step in and play the way they did, it’s unbelievable to the organization.”
Eighty-six players have suited up for at least one Capitals playoff game since 2008. There were cameo appearances from the likes of Scott Walker, Jason Arnott and Steve Oleksy.
But there were also mainstays like Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Karl Alzner and Jason Chimera who all played at least 60 playoff games alongside Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom without ever tasting the third round.
Yet as the Capitals piled behind the Penguins net Monday to celebrate Kuznetsov’s OT winner, the group included five rookies.
Thinking back to that first playoff run in 2008, the team’s marketing department pumped out a “Young Guns” campaign with posters and videos. The young players were going to help carry the team deep into the playoffs, the club said. Travis Boyd, Chandler Stephenson, Jakub Vrana, Nathan Walker and Christian Djoos aren’t who they had in mind. Yet here we are.
“I thought our window was closed, and that we were an old team,” Leonsis said. “And we had five rookies in the lineup tonight. So the future is bright, and now we have to focus on the third round.”
Those who have been around the longest are well aware.
“It’s great, obviously,” Beagle said. “It’s awesome. But we’re halfway there. The goal isn’t to get past the second round. The goal is the Stanley Cup. That’s always been the goal since we’ve been here. It’s a great feeling. Obviously we’ll enjoy it. But we’re halfway there.”
The Caps will open the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning later this week.
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