In the most story-rich Stanley Cup final in years, two stood out after the others all fell away in the wake of the Washington Capitals’ first NHL championship.
Alexander Ovechkin, long criticized as the face of the Capitals’ repeated playoff collapses over his 13 years in the league, finally cashed in at the age of 32. It’s the same age another player Ovechkin was long compared to was when he finally won his first Cup.
They always said Steve Yzerman had to change his ways from pure offence if he was ever going to lead the Detroit Red Wings to a Stanley Cup. He did, of course, and won his first one in 1997 plus two more before he retired at 40.
But Yzerman was never blasted the way Ovechkin was, probably because he was never as flamboyant as the latter, on or off the ice. So when his big moment finally came, after Thursday’s 4-3 clinching win over the Vegas Golden Knights, Ovechkin’s guttural, screeching celebration with the Stanley Cup was appropriately over the top.
However, once Ovechkin saw that each player on his team had a spin around the ice with the Cup, the captain took it to his coach, Barry Trotz, the other endearing story in this championship. After 20 years as a coach in the NHL, and facing his own questions about lacking a certain something to win a championship, not to mention guiding the Capitals all season without a contract for the next one, Trotz finally had his moment to lift the trophy high.
So it was that one of the first questions put to Ovechkin afterward was if the moment was as good as he expected.
“It’s even better. It’s just like a dream,” he said. “It was a hard, long season. We fight through it. We worked so hard through all the years and we were together. … We knew we just have to push it and get the result done.
Back when the 2017-18 season started, no one considered the Capitals much more than a team that might make the Eastern Conference final if things fell their way. In 2016-17, after all, the Capitals finished first over all in the regular season but had another second-round exit at the hands of the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
That was just another ignominious postseason for the Capitals in the Ovechkin era, which started in 2006 when he was the first overall pick in the NHL entry draft. Along the way, there were some blown 3-1 series leads and, perhaps worst of all, an upset in 2010 by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who made Ovechkin look like a spent force who could only skate petulantly down his wing and fire slap shots into the shinpads of their defencemen.
This season, though, both Trotz and Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said, Ovechkin made the necessary changes. They may have been more in attitude than style, as his go-to move is still the fearsome one-timer, but Ovechkin was such a force in the playoffs, with 15 goals and 27 points in 24 games, he easily won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, putting him in the same company as his rival Sidney Crosby.
“It’s not about me,” Ovechkin said of the Smythe trophy. “Just the whole team deserved it. I’m just lucky to get this reward. It was a whole one team. Stick with the system and it doesn’t matter what happened.”
The system came from Trotz, who was thought to be in his final days as the Capitals head coach when the playoffs started. His hiring was probably guided by team owner Ted Leonsis and president Dick Patrick rather than MacLellan, as they were both introduced on the same day in May, 2014, shortly after George McPhee, who now runs the Golden Knights, was fired as GM.
Trotz, 55, was long one of the most respected coaches in the NHL with a remarkable record of longevity. He was the first coach of the Nashville Predators when they entered the NHL in the 1998-99 season and he was there for 15 seasons.
The Predators became respectable quickly under Trotz and GM David Poile but, as with the Capitals, there was no playoff success. Under Trotz, the Predators made the postseason seven times but won only two series. By 2014, when Poile let him go, the knock on Trotz was he was too concerned with defence and lacked creativity.
At the time, McPhee had the opposite problem. His Caps teams were considered all flash with no defensive jam, so Trotz seemed to be the solution. He took the Caps to the playoffs from the start but could never get past the hated Penguins until this year.
By this season, Trotz became a lame duck when MacLellan did not offer an extension in the final year of his four-year contract. The fact MacLellan himself was extended by Leonsis had to hurt but Trotz never made his feelings on the matter public. By the time Thursday’s game rolled around, the coach was zen about the whole thing and had a ready answer for what he savoured most when his first Stanley Cup was secured.
“I never want to forget probably that last second when everybody on the bench is hugging each other and the emotion is like I can’t believe it,” Trotz said. “And the one thing you’ll never forget is the group picture on the ice. You can do all the pictures you want sitting and all that but that one when everybody’s there, your Black Aces, your trainers, your management, everybody who’s had a big piece of that and just the pure joy. That’s, to me, that is what you remember. When I go to my grave I’ll remember that moment. Because you do, you just do. It has such an imprint in your soul.”
What happens next is anyone’s guess. MacLellan said afterward if Trotz “wants to be back, he’ll be back.” Well, he could probably say the same thing about star defenceman John Carlson, who will be a free agent in a few weeks. Once the immediate euphoria clears, then slights such as being a lame duck all season might be considered, along with possible calls from other teams, such as the New York Islanders.
Trotz allowed he “absolutely” thinks he could stay in Washington. There was also just the hint of a but: “No matter what happens, give me a couple of days to enjoy or not enjoy what happens. This is a pretty special group. We’ll talk. I’m not worried, one way or the other. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I don’t lose any sleep over it.”