Capitals exorcise ghosts to reach Eastern Conference finals

PITTSBURGH — The Washington Capitals kept trying to downplay their own forgettable playoff history, the one pockmarked with disappointment and despair. Still, they couldn’t run from it.

No one bore the weight more than Alex Ovechkin. All the goals in the world — and the star forward is at over 600 and counting now — couldn’t take the sting away from the endless cycle of post-season runs that ended far too soon.

“It’s so hard to move forward some time,” Washington coach Barry Trotz said. “It’s always thrown in your face everywhere you turn. I know it’s thrown in Ovi’s face everywhere he turns and he’s a great player in this league.”

One who is finally headed to a conference final, with a team few expected to make it this far. The Capitals advanced to the Eastern Conference finals for only the third time since the franchise’s inception in 1974 with a 2-1 overtime victory in Game 6 against Pittsburgh on Monday night, a victory secured by Evgeny Kuznetsov’s breakaway 5:27 into the extra period .

“It feels like something is over,” Kuzntesov said. “It’s pretty hard to speak.”

Maybe because — for now anyway — Washington’s long-held role as playoff fodder for the Penguins is over. The Capitals beat Pittsburgh in the playoffs for only the second time in 11 tries by playing a disciplined style dictated by Trotz, one that focuses on responsibility at both ends of the ice.

The game-winning sequence began with Kuznetsov poking the puck away from Penguins star Sidney Crosby as Crosby tried to enter the Washington zone. The puck made its way to Ovechkin and he threaded a pass to a sprinting Kuznetsov, who beat Matt Murray to spark a celebration two decades in the making.

“I don’t want to lie, it tastes a little bit better (beating the Penguins),” Kuznetsov said. “You know, I never focus on the history. I only focus game by game. It feels very nice. You keep playing hockey, it’s unbelievable.”

Washington went 1-1-1 against the Lightning in three regular season meetings, the last a 4-2 loss at home on Feb. 20. That was two long months ago, and the team that celebrated in an equal parts joyous and relieved dressing room on Monday night doesn’t look like the one that was still searching for its legs in mid-winter.

Injuries forced the Capitals to put together a patchwork lineup that included a handful of rookies, such as Nate Walker, who became the first Australian to record a point in the playoffs when he set up Alex Chiasson’s second-period goal.

“We did have our moment in the first period when we said ‘Do we have five rookies playing tonight?’” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. “I thought our window had closed and we had an old team and we had five rookies. So our future remains bright and now we just have to focus on the third round.”

Washington will do it with a resurgent Braden Holtby. Benched at the start of the playoffs in favour of Philipp Grubauer, Holtby heads to the conference finals playing some of the finest hockey of his career. He stopped 21 of 22 shots in Game 6 and is now 8-3 since Trotz put him back in the lineup.

“Obviously everyone knows the difficulties we had getting out of the second round,” Holtby said. “But that doesn’t make a difference in our main goal. Our main goal is still the Stanley Cup. The third round isn’t the Stanley cup. We have to refocus now. We can enjoy it and use that energy as kind of a recharge for the halfway point and push full force into the next round because it’s going to be a hard test.”

One the Capitals believe they’re finally ready to pass. The franchise has only reached the Cup once, getting swept by Detroit in 1998, long before Ovechkin, Holtby and Leonsis came on board. This is their best chance at the club, one they’re intent on not squandering.

“We set goals every year,” Leonsis said. “Make the playoffs. First round. Second round. Third round and win a championship. So we’re trying to check them off. It’s almost embarrassing that it’s taken this long for us to get past it.”

Now that they have — at last, becoming the first professional team in the nation’s capital to reach a conference final since the ‘98 Capitals did it — they’re eager to shed the past. It’s over and done. The future — and the Lightning — await.

“We beat the Pittsburgh Penguins today and they’re a hell of a hockey team and we’re only halfway,” Trotz said. “We haven’t done anything yet.”

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