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Stanley Cup Playoffs: Capitals Top Lightning in Game 7, Advance to Stanley Cup Final

Tyler Horka

Alex Ovechkin has played in plenty of games during his illustrious NHL career—1,003 in the regular season and 116 in the playoffs, to be exact. Never had he played in one as monumental as Wednesday night’s Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. A win would send Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his 13-year career.

Knowing a loss would haunt him for however much longer the 32-year-old decides to play, Ovechkin got some help in the form of two goals from forward Andre Burakovsky and a 29-save effort from goalie Braden Holtby to lead the Capitals to a 4-0 win and into the franchise’s first Cup Final since 1998.

Washington will play the Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup starting on Monday, May 28 in Las Vegas.

"It’s … unbelievable," Ovechkin told NBC's Pierre McGuire after the final buzzer. "I can’t explain my emotions. I’m just happy for my boys, for the organization, for the fans. Finally. I can’t wait to come back home and play at home for Stanley Cup Final. It’s going to be nuts over there."

Ovechkin put his stamp on the game as early as he could, getting some help from Tom Wilson—who also made quite an impression on the game in the first period—forced a turnover in the neutral zone, and Ovechkin buried a one-timer from above the left circle moments later to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead 1:02 into the matchup.

Though Ovechkin was certainly one of the biggest storylines heading into Game 7, his goal wasn’t the highlight of the first 20 minutes. After the Caps’ captain nearly scored a second goal, everyone on the ice got tangled up around Lightning netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy. Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov lost his jersey and Wilson didn’t react kindly when Braydon Coburn tossed it onto the ice.

When Wilson and Coburn hopped out of the box after their respective two-minute minors, they immediately dropped their gloves and threw hands. Advantage: Wilson. He landed tons of rights on Coburn, and it was the Capitals who capitalized on the energy a fight generally brings to a game.

"He ripped the jersey right off one of our guy’s backs, so I think that’s pretty obvious, you gotta do that," Wilson said to McGuire about the tilt. "Gamesmanship. He’s a battler and you do what you gotta do in this game."

Washington seemed to want it more than its opposition from that point on, and one player in particular proved that to be true: Burakovsky netted two semi-breakaway goals in the second period, which sent Tampa Bay scattering to the locker room to a smattering of boos from the home fans at Amalie Arena as the Lightning faced a three-goal deficit after 40 minutes.

"Burkie, he had lots of energy," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said of his two-goal scorer who reportedly began seeing a pyschologist to deal with some mental struggles. "He came out and I thought he played with confidence. It’s something we’ve been on for a while, getting him to think about more of the positive things ... if you don’t score, there’s other things you can do to help the cause. He had lots of jump early. I was really happy for him."

With their season hanging in the balance, the Bolts came out for the third without any jolts of vitality. Tampa Bay didn’t generate a single shot on goal during the first half of the frame, even failing to do so on a power play early in the period. Tampa Bay’s number of shots on net matched the level of exuberance in the building.

"Once we got into the third period and got through the first five minutes, I knew we were in great shape because we were checking well, we had life on the bench," Trotz said. "Our leaders were just fantastic … prodding us along, the young guys, encouraging them."

Time continued to dwindle, but the Lightning couldn’t rise to the occasion. Ovechkin’s early goal, coupled with Wilson’s bouts of energy, set the tone for the remainder of the game. Burakovsky added insurance with his pair of tallies in the second and Nicklas Backstrom added an empty-netter late in the third to seal Washington’s win and its first berth in the Cup Final in two decades.

"Finally we get what we want, be in the Stanley Cup Final," Ovechkin said. "There's still lots of hockey, there’s still lots of energy, still lots of battles over there."

HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT

Fights aren’t commonplace during the playoffs. When one occurs, teams must have the nerve to respond accordingly. Tom Wilson won this bout, and the Capitals used it as a momentum booster and went on to dominate the rest of the game.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE NIGHT, PART II

But if you’re a lover and not a fighter, here’s a hockey highlight for you. It doesn’t get much better than a clap bomb from Ovi in a Game 7.

THREE STARS

1. Braden Holtby, WSH — Was he ever really tested in Game 7? No. But he did stop all 28 of the shots he faced en route to registering a massive Game 7 shutout. Tampa Bay didn’t throw anything too difficult at him, but Holtby was still rock-solid between the pipes.
2. Alex Ovechkin, WSH — His goal a minute into the game took the Tampa Bay fans out of it, and they never returned. In the biggest game of his career, Ovechkin did what he does best: Score.
3. Andre Burakovsky, WSH — Tom Wilson might deserve a spot here with the energy he instilled, but Burakovsky scored the goals that ultimately iced the contest.

LOOK AHEAD

The Stanley Cup Final presents a feel-good series all the way around. The Vegas Golden Knights have had a remarkable first season—the best season any expansion team has ever had, ever. The Washington Capitals finally broke through to the final during the Alex Ovechkin era. After many heartbreaks and unsatisfactory postseason campaigns, it’s much deserved.

Marc-Andre Fleury cruised the Golden Knights into the final series of the season as Vegas dispatched the Winnipeg Jets in five games. The Jets outshot Vegas in three of the five games, and the two teams tied in the other two. Fleury stood tall in all, and he’ll play for his fourth Stanley Cup title with loads of confidence.

“If he’s laughing and smiling and stuff, you know he’s on top of his game,” Vegas defenseman Deryk Engelland said on NBCSN. “He’s been the backbone to this team all season long and throughout this playoffs. We’re not at this point if he’s not in there.”

The Capitals, meanwhile, have a couple of Conn Smythe candidates of their own: offensive stalwarts Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, who both have 20-plus points this postseason. Despite the lowered expectations after having lost several key players in the 2017 offseason, Washington found its strength in the locker room.

"I think our group here really understands what it means to be a team and how to win," Holtby said after Game 7. "Maybe in the past we’ve had more skill or been better on paper, but this team, everyone knows their role and wants to pitch in. Everyone is comfortable with each other. I haven’t been on a team like this where, in any situation, we’re confident and confident in each other. It's a strong group and that’s extremely hard to come by and something that we're going to need to have moving forward."

With Washington riding high after outscoring Tampa Bay 7-0 in the last two games of the Eastern Conference Final, the Stanley Cup should provide everything hockey fans are asking for.