TAMPA, Fla. – Alex Ovechkin is thrilled, though hardly satisfied.
The Washington Capitals star is headed to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his 13-year career, eager to put more distance between the Eastern Conference champions and a lingering perception of Ovechkin and the Caps as playoff underachievers.
“Finally we get what we want, be in the Stanley Cup Final,” the 32-year-old Russian star said. “There’s still a lot of hockey to play.”
Ovechkin scored just over a minute into Washington’s 4-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final Wednesday night.
Braden Holtby stopped 29 shots to notch his second straight shutout. Andre Burakovsky scored two goals, and Nicklas Backstrom added an empty-netter to help the Capitals close it out.
Now, they’ve got to do it again against the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, who are Western Conference champions in their inaugural season.
“I feel very happy, but we’re not finished yet,” Ovechkin said. “We’ve been waiting for this moment a long time.”
The Golden Knights breezed through the Western Conference, scoring 43 goals and allowing 27 while going 12-3 to eliminate the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Winnipeg Jets during an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Vegas went 2-0 against the Capitals in the regular season, winning 3-0 at home on Dec. 23 and 4-3 at Washington on Feb. 4.
“It’s a great story. They’re a good hockey team, they have a lot of good players, players from other teams – I know a lot of people say we didn’t want those players, but we all did,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said.
“The rules were the rules. They did a great job, they’ve been galvanized as a group. There’s nothing tighter than that first-year group because there’s no pre-conceived notion. Leadership’s not in place, nobody knows where to live, all those things are galvanizing.”
The Golden Knights’ top scorer during the playoffs has been former Lightning forward Jonathan Marchessault with 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists). Alex Tuch is second among league rookies with nine points (six goals, three assists).
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s in the Stanley Cup Final for the third straight season and fifth time overall, has been a huge part of the team’s success, too, with a 1.68 goals-against-average and .947 save percentage.
Fleury and teammate James Neal return to the Cup Final after facing each other in the championship round last year – Fleury with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Neal with the Nashville Predators.
“They’re deep. They’re probably the most veteran team still playing in the playoffs. But they’ve done a fabulous job,” Trotz said. “They’re a fabulous story. … It’s a great story, not only for our game, but for everybody.”
To reach the Cup Final for the first time since 1998, the Caps beat Tampa Bay three times on the road to run their record to 8-2 away from home this postseason.
The Lightning, the NHL’s highest-scoring team during the regular season, didn’t have a goal over the final 159 minutes, 27 seconds of the series.
Ryan Callahan had Tampa Bay’s last goal at 33 seconds of the second period in Game 5.
“It’s fun. I’m more happy for that group than I am personally,” Trotz said. “They did it together. Everybody has been in all year. We kept growing on and off the ice.”
And shoving aside a decade of playoff frustration.
“The playoffs are fun,” Trotz added. “They got to the next level and realized they’re not going to be defined by anything they’ve done or not done in the past.”
AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno contributed to this story.
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