I’m sure no Caps fan alive to witness it will ever forget the moment the Caps finally broke through, exorcised the demons, and beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. And while in the moment, it felt like we had finally seen the promised land, there was a ways to go. As John Walton put it, they were off to Tampa Bay. Today marks the anniversary of perhaps the most important Game 7 in franchise history, that of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. As such, it felt appropriate to take a look back at the series that put the Caps in position to take their first ever Stanley Cup.
The Caps were facing a much better team in the Lightning. Tampa Bay netted 113 points that season, third best in the league, and best in the Eastern Conference. Their success was largely driven by their high powered offense, which averaged over 3.5 Goals per Game, the only team to do so in the 17-18 season.
Where the Caps had the advantage was the momentum they had carrying them into the series. According to Hockey Reference, the Caps had roared into the playoffs winning 8 of their last 10 games. Not only that, but they were riding high on the confidence they gained by slaying the Dragon in Pittsburgh just 4 nights before.
Games 1 & 2: Dominance in Tampa
The Caps rode that confidence and took an early lead against Tampa, with a Michal Kempny goal. However, late in the period, Tampa seemed to have tied the game with this nifty goal from Kucherov.
Unfortunately for them, they had an extra player on the ice, and the goal was waved off. Two seconds into the ensuing powerplay, the Caps’ Captain, the King of the Powerplay himself, put this dagger into the Lightning, scoring with just 6 seconds left until intermission. The Game ended 4-2 and the Caps had the early lead in the series.
Game 2 went well for Washington again. While the Lightning took a 2-1 lead into the first intermission, the rest of the game was an absolute bloodbath, with the Caps scoring 5 unanswered goals to take a 2-0 series lead back to Washington.
Games 3-5: Hey guys? You still there?
Spirits were high in DC before Game 3. So high in fact, that a couple of teenagers had Nicklas Backstrom sign a broom to commemorate the upcoming sweep. Personally, at the time, I thought it was hilarious. Unfortunately, the momentum that had brought the Caps this far had completely fizzled on the plane ride back to DC.
The Caps came out completely flat footed in game 3, giving up the first 3 goals. Lars Eller, arguably one of the most important players on the Caps roster during that playoff run, had an absolutely BRUTAL game, taking 3 penalties, one of which led to the Lightning’s second goal.
This rough stretch continued through Game 5. The Caps no longer looked like the team of destiny. Sloppy play, and the Lightning’s goaltending looked to be bringing an end to the Caps magical run. Despite outshooting the Lightning 106-65 during those 3 games, the Caps were outscored 11-6. Yet another Halak-ing appeared to be in the making.
Games 6-7: HOLTBEAST (oh and don’t forget Burky)
Braden Holtby’s 2017-18 regular season was….famously terrible. One of his worst career seasons in terms of the only goaltending statistic that actually measures goalie performance, Save Percentage. By the end of the Season, Barry Trotz had all but given up on him, replacing him with Phillip Grubauer. Of course, that all changed in Round 1 when, after 2 straight losses to Columbus, Trotz went back to his veteran starter.
Games 3-5 looked like Holtby was back to struggling, and worries were running high going into game 6 in DC, but what happened next was nothing short of shocking. In his entire career, regular season and playoffs combined, Holtby has put up 42 shutouts in 557 games played. Only twice has this happened in back to back starts. Once, in January of 2017, and once in the playoffs in 2018. He became just the 5th goaltender to put up consecutive shutouts in Games 6 & 7 of a playoff series in NHL history.
Holtby was nothing if not a brick wall in games 6 and 7. In those two games, he put up 53 consecutive saves. Of course, he was not the only hero late in the series. As Andre Burakovsky himself so eloquently put it, “it’s about f-ing time I woke up, huh?” [Citation Needed- I swear it happened but I can’t find the clip]. Burky put up two goals to put the final game out of reach, and seal the Caps trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
The 2018 Capitals were a magical team and that was best exemplified by the Eastern Conference finals. Come hell or high water they were not going to be denied on their quest for the Cup. Beating the Lightning in 7, on the heels of one of the best playoff goaltending performances, perfectly encapsulated everything about the Caps run.
Special thanks to hockeyreference.com for providing statistics and detailed game notes.