The 2018 Stanley Cup was a matchup between two surprise teams. After a thrilling first three rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington Capitals and the Vegas Golden Knights squared off for hockey’s ultimate prize. Despite both teams dominating their respective divisions this year, they were not considered heavy favorites at the beginning of the season.
Washington’s road to the finals was not an easy one. In round one of the playoffs, the Capitals stormed past the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games, despite trailing 0-2 in the series. In round two, Washington dethroned the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions Pittsburgh Penguins in six games. In the conference finals, the team snuck past the Tampa Bay Lightning — the East’s best team — in seven games.
Las Vegas’ road to the finals was not as difficult, but the Golden Knights still had several close matches. In round one, they swept the Los Angeles Kings, though all four games were decided by one goal. In round two, they fought past the San Jose Sharks in a six-game series. In the conference finals, they blazed through five games to beat the upstart Winnipeg Jets.
The Capitals made the finals for the first time since 1998. The Golden Knights became the first expansion team to reach the finals in their inaugural season since the 1967-1968 St. Louis Blues.
Game 1 took place at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on May 28. Golden Knights defenseman Colin Miller opened the scoring at seven minutes into the game, with a slap shot past Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. Washington answered back later in the period with Brett Connolly and Nicklas Bäckström scoring 42 seconds apart with about five minutes remaining in the frame. But with just over a minute and a half remaining, Vegas’ William Karlsson snuck the puck in between Holtby and the left post to tie the game at 2-2.
Vegas regained the lead three minutes and 21 seconds into the second period, when a rebound off the glass came to Deryk Engelland, who passed to an open Reilly Smith, who fired a shot past Holtby.
Five minutes later, Capitals defenseman John Carlson tied up the score after some nice passing by T.J. Oshie that left Carlson wide open for the goal.
Just 70 seconds into the third period, Washington’s Tom Wilson redirected Alexander Ovechkin’s shot past Vegas goaltender Marc-André Fleury to give his team a 4-3 lead. However, Vegas responded a minute and a half later, as Ryan Reaves went top-shelf to tie the game at 4-4. Midway through the frame, Tomás Nosek gave Vegas a 5-4 lead, after taking a pass from Shea Theodore in front of the net. Vegas kept the lead in the penultimate minutes, with Nosek scoring an empty-netter to finish the game off. Vegas took the opening game of the finals by a score of 6-4.
Two nights later, on May 30, the teams were back for Game 2. Eight minutes into the first period, James Neal gave the Golden Knights a 1-0 lead, when he took a pass from Luca Sbisa and fired a wrist shot past Holtby. But with two and a half minutes left in the frame, the Caps tied it up, with Lars Eller shooting into a wide-open net off a great feed from defenseman Michal Kempny. Five and a half minutes into the second period, Golden Knights forward Alex Tuch was penalized for cross-checking, and on the ensuing power play, Ovechkin fired a shot from the left circle at a tight angle to give Washington a 2-1 lead.
Brooks Orpik extended Washington’s lead to two goals four minutes later, after his shot deflected off Tuch and past Fleury. But with just over two minutes remaining in the period, Vegas’ Theodore cut the deficit back to 1 point with a power-play goal. Trailing 3-2 entering the third period, the Golden Knights put all kinds of pressure on Holtby and the Capitals’ defense. Holtby stopped all 15 shots thrown his way, including one block that is now known as “The Save.”
With two minutes remaining in the period, the Golden Knights dumped the puck into Washington’s zone, but the puck took an unusual carom off the right boards. After a quick pass to the front of the net, Tuch wasted no time firing at the wide-open goal. But Holtby dove out of nowhere and made a ridiculous sprawling stick save. That kept the Caps’ 3-2 lead intact the rest of the way, as Washington evened the finals to one game apiece.
The series shifted to Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., for Game 3 on June 2. Both teams were held scoreless in the first period. But over a minute into the second period, Ovechkin gave Washington a 1-0 lead. Evgeny Kuznetsov, who suffered an arm injury the previous game and was doubtful to even play in Game 3, scored with just over seven minutes to go in the frame, extending Washington’s lead to two goals. The Golden Knights got some life three and a half minutes into the third period, when Nosek scored off a Holtby giveaway to slice the lead in half.
But 10 minutes later, Devante Smith-Pelly restored the Capitals’ two-goal lead. Theodore mishandled the puck in his own zone and Jay Beagle capitalized on the error, making a pass to the open Smith-Pelly for the goal.
Washington played shutdown defense the rest of the way and took a 2-1 series lead with its 3-1 victory.
This set up a crucial Game 4 for both teams on June 4. The Capitals jumped all over the Golden Knights in the first period, taking a 3-0 lead in the frame. Midway through the period, Oshie opened the scoring on the power play. Six and a half minutes later, Wilson scored with a wrist shot past Fleury. With 21 seconds remaining in the period, Smith-Pelly scored, after a pass by Matt Niskanen deflected off Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault to the stick of Smith-Pelly, who scored top-shelf on Fleury.
The Caps kept going at Vegas in the second period, as Carlson scored on the power play with four and a half minutes remaining to give Washington a 4-0 lead. But Vegas slowly got back into the game in the third period. Neal and Smith scored in the frame to cut the deficit to 4-2 with seven and a half minutes remaining. Washington answered back just over a minute later, when Kempny scored off a beautiful pass from Bäckström. Connolly added another goal for the Caps with less than two minutes remaining. Washington’s 6-2 victory in Game 4 put the team one win away from the Stanley Cup.
The scene shifted back to Vegas for a potential Cup-clinching Game 5 on June 7. No goals were scored in the first period. But in the second period, the goals came in bunches. Six and a half minutes into the second period, Wilson passed to a speedy Jakub Vrána, who fired a shot past Fleury to take the lead. The Golden Knights tied the game three minutes later, as Nate Schmidt shot through a flurry of players and the puck deflected off Niskanen and past Holtby. But just 34 seconds later, Ovechkin gave the Capitals the lead again on the power play, firing a shot at Fleury, bouncing off his back and into the net.
David Perron tied the game for Vegas, scoring his first goal of the postseason via deflection. Smith gave the Golden Knights a 3-2 lead in the final minute of the second period, taking the pass from Tuch and beating Holtby.
During the third period, Smith-Pelly tied the game midway through the period. Less than three minutes later, a shot came from the slot and seemingly stopped between Fleury’s pads. But the puck snuck through and lay behind the oblivious goaltender. Washington’s Lars Eller backhanded it into the net to give the Capitals the lead with seven and a half minutes remaining. Despite pressure from Vegas, Washington held on to its 4-3 lead
until the end. The final buzzer sounded and the long-awaited celebration began.
For the first time in their 44-year history, the Capitals won the Stanley Cup. It was also the first time a professional Washington, D.C., sports team won a championship since the Washington Redskins won Super Bowl XXVI in 1991. After a decade of playoff futility, the Caps exorcised their demons. Ovechkin added the most important trophy to his collection of individual awards and solidified himself as an all-time great. Ovechkin also won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP, finishing with 15 goals and 27 points. Kuznetsov, with 12 goals and 32 points, led all players in postseason scoring.
Despite the Golden Knights falling short, they had the most successful inaugural season in recent history. They earned their place in the NHL and proved all the critics wrong. From their entrance into the NHL, they were rubbed off as a joke. But they made the finals with very few all-stars on their team and very little support. The Golden Knights are a force to be reckoned with in future seasons and have made hockey a staple in Sin City.
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