ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Alex Ovechkin lifted the Prince of Wales Trophy, spun around and set it back down on a table.
The rest of the Capitals joined him for a team photo after beating the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 on Wednesday night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, a victory that sent Washington to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 20 years.
A decade of playoff frustration is fading fast.
“I think Ovie has been on a mission,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “They wanted this game, no question.”
Ovechkin scored early and Andre Burakovsky added two second-period goals as the Caps continued to shed a label as postseason underachievers.
Braden Holtby stopped 29 shots for his second straight shutout and the Lightning, who led the NHL in goals during the regular season, failed to score in the last 159 minutes, 27 seconds of the series – a stretch of nearly eight periods.
Ovechkin, who had never advanced beyond the second round, scored 1:02 into the winner-take-all showdown he had described as probably the “biggest game in my life.”
“The first goal was very important,” Ovechkin said. “After that you could see we have all the momentum on our side. Holts was unstoppable today. He was special. Everybody was all in. Everybody was sacrificing their bodies. I think we all deserve the win.”
To earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Final, where they’ll play the Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals beat the top-seeded Lightning three times on the road, improving to 8-2 away from home this postseason.
It’s Washington’s first Cup Final appearance since 1998, and the first during Ovechkin’s 13-year career.
“We played a great game,” defenseman John Carlson said. “We deserved to win this.”
Two games after being a healthy scratch for Game 5, Burakovsky became the 17th player to score a goal for Washington in the playoffs this year – four shy of the NHL record – when he beat Andrei Vasilevskiy on a breakaway at 8:59 of the second period.
The winger, who played two games in the first round against Columbus before sitting out 10 straight with an upper-body injury, added a breakaway goal to make it 3-0 heading into the last period.
Nicklas Backstrom had an empty-netter to complete the rout.
“What a game. What an experience. We had a lot of guys pitching in,” winger T.J. Oshie said. “The biggest guy of all had to be Holts. He played fantastic, back to back shutouts.”
Tampa Bay, which rebounded from losing the first two games at home to win three straight for a 3-2 series lead, had plenty of chances. A couple of shots clanged off the post, Yanni Gourde was unable to get his stick on a loose puck in front on an empty net and the game gradually slipped away.
Washington was the more physical team in evening the series with a bruising 3-0 victory in Game 6. They played with urgency from the start again Wednesday night and never let up.
Tampa Bay’s last goal in the series came 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5, which the Lightning went on to win 3-2.
“We’re here to win as team, no matter who gets the credit,” said Holtby, the fifth goalie to deliver a Game 7 shutout to clinch a spot in the Stanley Cup Final.
“I felt we could have won every game,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “We ran into a tough Washington team that was probably feeling the same thing, and once you get this far you’ve probably done some magical things on the way.”
It was the 33rd time in league history that a Game 7 was required to determine a Stanley Cup finalist. Home teams are 21-12 in those games.
Tampa Bay also played Game 7 in the Eastern Conference final in 2015, when they blanked the New York Rangers, and again two years ago, when they lost 2-1 to Pittsburgh.
Both of those deciding games were on the road. The Lightning had never lost a Game 7 at home before Wednesday night.
“It’s going to take a few days to digest this. It’s tough to sit here right now and think of positive things and how it was a pretty great season,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “It doesn’t seem that way when you have this group – and we’ve been to this position before – and you can’t find a way to give yourself a chance a win. We thought we had that group. It’s just an empty feeling right now.”
Notes: Ovechkin and Backstrom made their 11th career Game 7 appearance, one shy of Boston’s Zdeno Chara for the most among active NHL players. In addition to Chara, only five other players in NHL history have appeared in more Game 7s: Patrick Roy (13), Scott Stevens (13), Glenn Anderson (12), Ken Daneyko (12) and Stephane Yelle (12). … Evgeny Kuznetsov’s assist on Ovechkin’s early goal extended his points streak to 10 games. … Vasilevskiy made 19 saves. The Lightning outshot the Capitals (29-23) for the first time in the series.
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