LAS VEGAS — Defenseman Matt Niskanen said he’ll never forget the sounds coming out of the pile of Washington Capitals players stacked on goalie Braden Holtby after they clinched their first Stanley Cup title.
“(It was like) a bunch of 10-year-olds who had won their first hockey tournament,” Niskanen said. “It was like we were little kids again.”
The emotional celebration was fitting for players celebrating the franchise’s first championship in its 44-year-history and Washington’s first major pro sports title since the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl in 1992.
“When you see the pictures of the people back home, the full arena, it is a lot bigger than you even realize it is,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.
Although it was a Vegas home game, Capitals jerseys were everywhere in the building Thursday night. You could hear Washington fans chant: “We want the Cup.”
Nothing came easy in this playoff run, and that was true in the clinching Game 5. They erased a 3-2 third period deficit to post a 4-3 win against the Vegas Golden Knights. Devante Smith-Pelly, one of Washington’s unsung heroes, was falling to the ice as he drove home the tying goal at 9:52 of the third period. Lars Eller put the Capitals ahead for good at 12:23 of the period.
“Fans never quit on us and we never quit on each other,” Washington defenseman John Carlson said.
The kid-like enthusiasm was also appropriate for the veteran Washington players who had been previously linked to several failed attempts to win the Cup. The team had never been beyond the second round in the Alex Ovechkin era before this season.
“This is like a dream,” said Ovechkin, named MVP after scoring his 15th goal of the playoffs.
This was the season in which the Capitals were supposed to take a half-step back. Salary cap issues forced MacLellan to change up his roster, bringing in less-expensive and less-proven players. Among the newcomers was Smith-Pelly, who scored three goals in the Stanley Cup Final.
“This is the opposite of the last two years when we were expected to win,” MacLellan said. “We were a non-conversation throughout this whole year.”
MacLellan said the Capitals struggled all season to discover how they needed to play to be successful. “And I think that made us mentally strong,” he said.
While Ovechkin clearly led the charge for the Cup, the Capitals had many contributors to their success as they overcame a 2-0 deficit against the Columbus Blue Jackets, beat the nemesis Pittsburgh Penguins and won Game 7 on the road against the Tampa Bay Lightning to get to the final.
Ovechkin called center Evgeny Kuznetsov “magic.” Goaltender Braden Holtby didn’t start the first two games of the playoffs and then ended up being a standout performer. John Carlson played like a Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman and Brooks Orpik was a rock on defense.
Most players agreed the Capitals wouldn’t have thrived without the contributions of rugged forward Tom Wilson, who contributed both with his physical playing style and offensive production.
“On paper, we are not as good as we were the last two years, but there is something special about this group,” Niskanen said. “We just started to click in mid-March. We worked for each other. We won battles. We were committed to do whatever it takes.”
The Capitals were a resilient bunch. They lost the first game of the Stanley Cup Final and then won four consecutive game against a Golden Knights team that had looked nearly invincible all season and postseason.
“In every series, we were down and came back and won,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.
This was also Trotz’s first Stanley Cup championship, and it comes with his contract about to expire. It has been speculated all season that he would be coaching elsewhere next season.
But when he was asked after the Cup was won, whether there was a chance he would be back, he said, “Absolutely.”