https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/abfd386a2955609772f6d75730f216a979ea99f0/c=564-0-4926-3280&r=x393&c=520x390/local/-/media/2018/05/23/USATODAY/USATODAY/636627144904934974-USATSI-10850063.jpg

By Kevin Allen – USA Today

Last fall, defenseman Matt Niskanen could foresee unprecedented success for this Washington Capitals team for the oddest of reasons.

“I said to my wife, ‘On paper, we’re not as good this year, but watch, this will be the year we do something,’ ” he recalled. “Just the way it works. Hockey is a funny sport.”

The Capitals had both tears and laughter Wednesday night when they downed the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final to earn the franchise’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998.

Washington will face the Vegas Golden Knights in an unlikely best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final starting Monday in Las Vegas.

The Capitals are trying to win their first Stanley Cup in their 44-year history and the Golden Knights have qualified for the Final in their first NHL season.

“I’m happy for the fans because they’ve been through some tough times with us and teams of the past,” Washington winger T.J. Oshie said.

 Nobody on the Capitals was happier than captain Alex Ovechkin, 32, who had never been beyond the second round of the playoffs before this season. He has often been blamed for the Capitals’ poor playoff performances in recent years.

But Washington’s playoff misery started long before Ovechkin’s arrival in 2005. Before downing the Lightning, the Capitals were 4-11 in Game 7s. In their one Stanley Cup Final appearance 20 years ago, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.

When he was interviewed on television, immediately after beating the Lightning, Ovechkin said he was having trouble sorting through his emotions.

But then he put everything into perspective by saying: “Finally.”

“I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished (business),” Ovechkin said. “I’m emotional. I think we’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time.”

Ovechkin, the NHL’s most dangerous scorer in this era, is considered to be among the greatest players never to have won a Stanley Cup.

Andre Burakovsky, born in Austria and raised in Sweden, was Washington’s offensive hero with a pair of goals, but it was Ovechkin who launched the win by scoring the first goal of the game just 1:02 in. He also led his team with five hits in Game 7.

With 12 goals, 10 assists and 66 hits, Ovechkin has been beastly in the postseason. He is one of the top Conn Smythe Trophy candidates going into the Final.

https://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/e7144bb3f9bca83b5bdb47d5725654dedbc0350c/c=104-0-3658-2672&r=x393&c=520x390/local/-/media/2018/05/23/USATODAY/USATODAY/636627144874484386-USATSI-10850062.jpg

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly presents the Prince of
Wales Trophy to Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin

Just by the way Ovechkin has talked about this team, it was clear that he believed the Capitals had the right mix to be successful even though general manager Brian MacLellan made several changes last summer to ease salary cap concerns. The Capitals were supposed to take a half-step back, but ended up taking a step forward in terms of being ready for the playoffs.

Coach Barry Trotz, whose contract expires at the completion of the season, has been vocal about how much he believed in this team. He apparently told his players that again before Game 7.

“When a coach comes in without a cheat sheet in his hand and speaks from the heart and you see in his eyes that he believes what he’s saying it gives you a lift,” Oshie said. “It shows you he’s all in, and the only thing left is for us to do our job. We did that.” 

The hallmark of this Capitals team is their ability to dig deep when they need to the most. They trailed 3-2 in this series, and then won Games 6 and 7 on shutouts by Braden Holtby. He has gone more than 157 minutes without giving up a goal.

“Holts was fantastic back there,” Oshie said. “Back to back shutouts against a team like that on this stage is special.”

This team has been special, according to the Capitals. “We have a good mix of everything. We have some old players with experience,” Washington center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We’ve got some new, young players, which is great. I feel like everyone has been stepping up during the playoffs. We were doing all right during the regular season, but I feel like we’ve been playing even better as a team in the playoffs.”

He shared a moment with Ovechkin as the team celebrated on the ice.

“After it was done, I felt like you don’t even have to say so much,” Backstrom said. “You just have to look at each other. We’ve been waiting a long time for this. Now we’re in the finals and we’re going to do everything we can to do something special here for us, for the team and for the city.”