TAMPA, Fla. -- It finally happened.
"We're going to the Stanley Cup Final," Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said after the Caps' 4-0 Game 7 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday. "I think everybody is happy, but we still have unfinished ... you know what I mean. I don't know. I'm emotional right now. I think we've been waiting for this moment for a long time."
Ovechkin will play in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in his 13-year career, and it's Washington's first Final since 1998.
The first moment it appeared this might happen for the Capitals was 1 minute, 2 seconds into Game 7, when Ovechkin scored his 12th goal of the playoffs and 11th career goal in an elimination game. It wasn't a classic Ovechkin blast, but more of a fluttering puck that fooled Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy on the first shot of the game.
It was a critical goal, and not just because the game was on Tampa Bay's home ice: The team that scores first in a Game 7 usually wins, with a .743 winning percentage throughout NHL history.
"He's led our team in the right direction," Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. "Every shift, he's doing something. That's infectious throughout our whole lineup."
The next moment it appeared this might happen for the Capitals was in the second period, when, with a one-goal lead, Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman lured Holtby out of position to leave the net completely exposed and then fed the puck to Yanni Gourde in the middle of the crease for what looked like an easy game-tying goal.
Except Gourde didn't get a shot off.
"For a good portion of the series, the hockey gods left us for a bit," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, a self-professed believer in the puck supernatural. "The hockey gods always even out things for you. Our guys got a stick on [Gourde's shot]. I knew that the hockey gods would always reward you if you stay with it."
It was the kind of glaring missed chance that, frankly, would have been found on any Capitals lowlight reel in their sad history of playoff failures.
But this time, the Capitals got the bounces. This time it was their goalie who dominated. This time it was their opponent who went out with a whimper, as the Lightning missed on chance after chance.
"It's a dump-in, it hits me in the chest," Girardi explained. "I was just trying to not close my hand on it and take a penalty. It just trickled away from me, couldn't get it. It's a tough bounce."
The goal came after 10 minutes of near total domination by the Lightning, who had a shot-attempt advantage of 45-26 by the end of the second period. It ended a postseason point drought of eight games for Burakovsky, going back to 2017. It was his first point of this postseason, one in which he missed all but two games against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and all of the Capitals' second-round elimination of the Pittsburgh Penguins after having minor surgery to repair an upper-body injury. Burakovsky also was a healthy scratch in Game 5 against the Lightning.
"It hasn't been easy for me," Burakovsky said. "It's been pretty hard. I was working really hard to get back as fast as possible. It feels really good to help the team to get a win and be a part of this team."
The next moment it appeared this might happen for the Capitals was when Holtby brilliantly preserved the 2-0 lead with a breakaway save on Alex Killorn, one of three times in the game that Holtby stonewalled the Lightning forward.
"He makes a big save, and the energy on the bench is just unbelievable. In the second period, the breakaway," Ovechkin said. "He made the save and everybody was like ..."
The Capitals captain took a long pause to clean up the verbiage for all audiences.
"Everybody was like, 'Good job,'" Ovechkin said with a laugh.
Holtby made all the saves, big and small. He stopped 29 shots in Game 7 and 24 in Game 6, posting shutouts in each contest. The Lightning were held scoreless in this series after Ryan Callahan's goal 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5. It was as dominating a stretch as Holtby has had in the postseason.
"He played fantastic," Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. "Back-to-back shutouts, at this stage, against that team? It's pretty special."
The next moment it appeared this might happen for the Capitals was the moment when Oshie believed the game was over: Burakovsky's second goal of the game at 16:31 of the second period, on a brilliant outlet pass from John Carlson.
"I felt they played an awesome game. But when we got that third one, it felt like we were going to hold on and get the job done," Oshie said. "Not too much suspense. But I don't know if we could have taken much suspense."
Still, Burakovsky wasn't convinced.
"It was a nervous third period. We didn't stop playing at all. We stuck with the game, still tried to outwork them; even with 30 seconds left, we still went after them. That's the spirit we had all postseason," he said, glancing at his championship gear. "Just wearing this hat, this T-shirt, it's a dream coming true. But we're not there yet. We have a long way to go."
The next moment it appeared this might happen for the Capitals was when it became apparent that the Lightning had been beaten down so much that they had mustered just seven shots with 20 minutes left in their season.
"You think when you get this far, for sure you're thinking it's your year," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "I'm sure they were thinking the same thing. Ovi's been banging at the door for how many years, and this is the farthest he's gotten in his career. I'm sure they were using the same thing.
"When you get to this point, you probably could have flipped a coin and not guessed who would win among the four teams. It just sucks for us that we're not one of the teams that's left."
The next moment it appeared this might happen for the Capitals was when it actually happened: Ovechkin, wearing a championship hat for the first time in his career, grabbing the Prince of Wales Trophy without regard for any voodoo associated with it. When you've been chasing some modicum of postseason glory for 13 years and finally get it, the last thing you're worried about is some hex.
"Ovi's been on a mission," said Trotz, before elaborating on how personal the mission was for Ovechkin. "I think, you know, I was over seeing my son in Russia, and I went to visit Ovi right after his wedding [in the offseason]. We talked about a couple of things, redefining himself a little bit. There were a lot of people doubting if he still had what it took. The great players take exception to that.
"A lot of things were said at the end of last year in the press, Twitter, whatever. And they're hurtful, and I think he took it personally. He said, 'I'm going to show you I'm still a great player.' And he did."
The Vegas Golden Knights, a team that didn't exist a year ago, are all that is standing in the way of the Capitals' first Stanley Cup.
Indeed, in a postseason that saw the Capitals overcome so many of their playoff demons and nightmares -- from John Tortorella to Sidney Crosby -- the only thing standing in their way is a team built by their former general manager, George McPhee, and whose goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, played a role in two series wins for Pittsburgh over Washington in the past couple of seasons.
The Capitals are one more round and four more wins away from doing something no other team in franchise history has accomplished.
It finally happened for Ovechkin and the Capitals: The Stanley Cup is within reach.