Alex Ovechkin put Washington ahead to stay after only 62 seconds and the Capitals advanced to their first NHL Stanley Cup Final in 20 years by defeating Tampa Bay 4-0 Wednesday.
Andre Burakovsky scored two unassisted second-period goals and Braden Holtby made 29 saves for his second consecutive shutout as the Capitals ousted the host Lightning 4-3 in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference Final.
Capitals captain Ovechkin, a seven-time goals champion, will play for the crown for the first time in his 13-season NHL career. The 32-year-old Russian winger had never reached the playoff final four until this month.
“We’re really happy but we’re not finished, not done yet,” Ovechkin said. “We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time. We understand what it takes to be in the final.”
Washington, seeking a first-ever Cup, will face a first-year expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, on Monday in game one of the best-of-seven championship series at Las Vegas, Nevada.
“We’re pretty excited about the next step,” Washington’s Tom Wilson said. “It’s a crazy feeling. It hasn’t sunk in yet. It’s going to be a wild ride in Vegas. It’s going to be a historic one. We’re looking forward to a heck of a show.”
Ovechkin, whose 607 regular-season goals are the most of any active player, is a three-time world champion and three-time Olympian for Russia, but missed his compatriots’ Olympic gold run at Pyeongchang in February as the NHL did not shut down for players to compete.
“He has just been a beast,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said of Ovechkin. “He has just taken it to the next level. He wants to get us to the next level.”
The Capitals reached their only prior final in 1998, when they were swept by Detroit.
“Oh my God. It’s unbelievable,” Ovechkin said. “I can’t explain my emotions. I’m just happy for my boys, the organisation, the fans. I can’t wait to come back home and play in the Stanley Cup Final. It’s going to be nuts up there.”
No Washington team has won a major sports title since the NFL Redskins won the 1992 Super Bowl.
Vegas, a club of castoffs from other NHL teams assembled by former Capitals general manager George McPhee, went 2-0 against Washington in the regular season.
Wouldn’t be denied
Ovechkin, the NHL goals leader this season with 49, put Washington ahead 1-0 with his 12th playoff goal, firing a slapshot under the right arm of Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“He wasn’t going to be denied,” Wilson said of Ovechkin. “He put everything into it. He’s a phenomenal teammate. He has battled for this for a long time. So let’s keep it going.”
Austrian-born Swede Burakovsky scored 8:59 and 16:31 into the second period and Nicklas Backstrom added a final goal with 3:43 remaining.
“It’s a great feeling. I still can’t believe it,” Backstrom said. “We worked so hard for it. It only took (me) 11 years. It was outstanding. I’m so happy.
“This year we played confident every game in the playoffs. Before this game I thought we were really focused and really composed. That’s what you need in game seven.”
Holtby had not blanked a team in 84 starts before his two playoff shutouts, becoming only the fifth goalie in NHL playoff history with game six and seven shutouts.
“Maybe in the past we had more skill and looked better on paper, but this is such a great team,” Holtby said. “I haven’t been on a team like this where in any situation we’re confident in each other.”
Holtby made 60 saves over the two games.
“He was unstoppable,” Ovechkin said.
The Capitals’ fairy-tale playoff run saw them rally after two home losses to oust Columbus in round one and beat arch-nemesis Pittsburgh, which ousted Washington the past two years, in round two.
Against Tampa Bay, the Capitals won twice in Florida, then dropped three in a row before salvaging the series.
“Every series is tough,” Ovechkin said. “We’re just playing our game. We stick to the system. We deserved to win. We had hard moments in every series and we came through. We’re going to fight.”
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