Capitals fans were conditioned to postseason disappointment despite the team being a model of consistent success. Since the start of the 1982-1983 season, the Capitals have the most regular season wins of any NHL team. It has been what has happened after the Caps got into the playoffs that brought about so much heartache.
Oh, there were postseason moments. I was only at WTOP for five months when in May of 1990, I was sent to Boston to cover the Capitals in what was then known as the Wales Conference Finals. Eight years later, in 1998, the Capitals did finally breakthrough and surprised most hockey observers by making it to their first Stanley Cup Final, only to be swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
It seemed certain to be different for the Capitals in the Alexander Ovechkin era. Ovechkin hit the ice for the Capitals in the 2005-2006 season, and it was clear the team had a generational player like Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. If Gretzky and Lemieux had won Stanley Cups, then surely Ovechkin, in a Capitals uniform, would lift the Stanley Cup.
In his third season with the Capitals, Ovechkin led the team from last place in the division standings in November to the 2008 playoffs. The Capitals made it to the Eastern Conference quarterfinals before losing to the Flyers. Despite the playoff exit, the Capitals’ magical run that season started a romance between the team and city and a string of sold-out home games that is still going.
Suddenly, there was real passion and support for hockey in D.C., but the Capitals still struggled to find their way in the playoffs in subsequent years. The Penguins, who gave the Capitals fits in the 1990s, were a problem again.
Lemieux was now part-owner of the Penguins, and with Sidney Crosby leading the way, they were getting the better of Ovechkin and the Capitals.
In spring 2018, the Capitals finally broke through and beat the Penguins in six games in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. It was as the Capitals were winning Game Five that Walton, on the radio, told us: “It’s OK to believe.”
Walton needed to remind Caps fans to believe, because over the team’s playoff history, 10 times it had lost a series after having either a 3-1 lead or 2-0 lead.
The Capitals won Game Six of that playoff series with the Penguins in overtime, no less, with Evgeny Kuznetsov delivering the joy with the winning goal. Kuznetsov’s goal seemed to change everything.
The Capitals even lost three straight games to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals. On the brink of elimination, they pulled through to win the final two games of the series and advance to the Stanley Cup Final against the Golden Knights.
After losing Game One of the series, the Capitals won three straight to set up the memorable night in Las Vegas. What might not be remembered now by many Capitals fans is that going into the third period, the Golden Knights had the momentum and a 3-2 lead. But for Walton, who told us it was OK to believe, there was no question the 2018 Stanley Cup would end up with the Capitals.
“This team was not going to be denied,” he said. “There was just this feeling in the building all night long. There were so many Caps fans who were there anticipating the moment [and] had found a way to buy tickets from the Golden Knights. And here was the moment and here was the time and it unfolded right in front of us in the third period.”
Devante Smith-Pulley tied the game at 9:52 of the third, and then less than three minutes later, Lars Eller scored the game-winner. The Capitals then held on for a 4-3 win, and after 43 seasons in the NHL, the Stanley Cup belonged to Washington.
What came next was an incredible summer of joy in Washington. There was the championship parade and people as far as you could see smiling and wearing Capitals red. Players had fun swimming in fountains in Georgetown and breaking out into impromptu celebrations all over town.
And if the Stanley Cup trophy could talk, Walton believes it would have plead with the Capitals: “Listen, I love you guys, but please take it easy on me next time,” Walton said. “From the Georgetown waterfront, to Adams Morgan, to the day of the parade, that Cup got a workout. The group of guys on that team were some of the most fun people as a group I’ve ever been around.
It all starts with number eight (Ovechkin). He is not just the greatest goal scorer of all time, he is a lot of fun.”