For so many years, the Washington Capitals seemed to hold the winning hand. So many years, they had dominant teams, Presidents' Trophy teams, teams holding a 20 at the blackjack table, only to see the house win at the last second.
It all changed in Las Vegas on Thursday night against the franchise playing with the ultimate house money. The Capitals—the Capitals—who still hold the dubious distinction of having one of the worst squads in pro sports history, in their expansion season, are the Stanley Cup champions after defeating the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 in Game 5. The Caps beat an expansion team in its inaugural season in the Cup Final.
You can't make this stuff up.
Forty-four years after entering the NHL and compiling an 8-67-5 record in that 1974-75 season, the Caps are champions of the world. The Vegas fans? Well, there's always next year and plenty more to come after that.
Vegas couldn't lose, no matter what happened in this series. It remains one of pro sports' most unbelievable stories, starting the year with 500-1 odds from the Las Vegas Superbook to win the title. It was preposterous enough for an expansion team to make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. It was another thing entirely that a team from Las Vegas did it. The most far-fetched fantasy show on The Strip couldn't compete with that.
The city of Las Vegas is still considering throwing a parade for its Golden Knights. And it should. They might not get the Hollywood movie made about them now, but they're still big winners and were an inspiration to the community after tragedy struck the city early in the season.
The biggest winners, of course, are those hardcore Capitals fans who stayed with them all the way through that first year. And there are plenty of them.
The Caps enjoyed periods of success in the '80s and '90s, even making it to their only previous Stanley Cup Final in 1998, only to be swept by the Detroit Red Wings. Then, after a few mediocre seasons, they got Alexander Ovechkin with the first pick of the 2004 NHL draft, and by 2008-09, the Caps were a 50-win team.
From 2010 to 2017, the Caps won three Presidents' Trophies. From 2015 through '17, Washington had a combined regular-season record of 111-37-16. But the Caps became the most unhappy presidents to occupy Washington in those years. None of those seasons ended with a Cup.
Ovechkin, whose hair has gone from jet black to salt-and-pepper gray during his otherworldly career, seemed destined to become hockey's version of Charles Barkley. Everything had been accomplished, except that one thing: a championship.
All those wisecracks were wiped out with one magnificent, chipped-toothed grin when the clock hit all zeroes at T-Mobile Arena. Ovechkin had the happiest look with a Cup in his hands probably since Ray Bourque lifted it for the first time in 2001, with the Colorado Avalanche, in the final game of his 22-year career. His enthusiasm was so infectious that he even got a hug and a cackling laugh from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman just before receiving Lord Stanley's gleaming silver punch bowl.
How great will the party be at Ovechkin's hotel room in Vegas on Thursday night? One can only imagine. But for the Caps, what happened in Vegas won't stay in Vegas. When the Stanley Cup emerges from that team plane in Washington, the party will be on.
It'll be OK by us if any federal workers want to take that day off, on parade day. If anyone deserves a day of hooky, it's Washington's hockey fans. It appeared as if the Capitals' championship window had shut, too, at least in the Ovechkin era. If a team that went 111-37-16 the previous two seasons couldn't close the deal, how would this season's edition, with a graying 32-year-old captain and a supporting cast that, while still strong, seemed a step or two behind younger teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins in the league's elite circle?
Washington got 105 regular-season points but entered the playoffs unsure about its starting goaltending. Philipp Grubauer started two postseason games for Washington after longtime No. 1 Braden Holtby struggled at times down the stretch. But Holtby got the starting job back early in the playoffs and got better and better.
The Capitals were down 3-2 to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final, but Holtby became a star again. He led the Caps to the come-from-behind series win, then shut the door on the fast, frisky Golden Knights. After a shaky showing in that Game 1 loss in Vegas, Holtby was mostly dominant, never allowing more than three goals in a game with a .934 save percentage.
He, Ovechkin and Caps veteran center Nicklas Backstrom shared the longest, most satisfying-looking hugs when they won the Cup.
Ovechkin has always had a reputation for having a good time away from the ice, especially in Las Vegas—he's won more than a few awards in the league's postseason gala there, including three Hart Trophies.
But those were only individual things. This time, he can party with 22 of his best friends and share in hockey's ultimate team accomplishment.
And when he's got his grandchildren on his knee someday, when they ask how he became a world champion, Ovechkin can smile and start with: "It all happened in Vegas, baby."