Ovechkin-led Capitals reach first NHL semi-final since 1998

Washington (AFP) –


Seven-time scoring champion Alexander Ovechkin has finally reached the Stanley Cup playoff semi-finals in his 13th National Hockey League season, sparking the Washington Capitals' deepest playoff run in 20 years.

The 32-year-old Russian winger celebrated after Washington's 2-1 overtime triumph at Pittsburgh ousted the two-time defending champion Penguins 4-2 in the best-of-seven second round, advancing the Capitals to an Eastern Conference Final matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Nobody expected we were going to be in this position before this season, in this game and in this playoffs," Ovechkin said. "We beat the twice Stanley Cup champion, and it gives us a pretty good feeling about ourselves."

The Penguins eliminated Washington in nine of their 10 prior playoff meetings, including the past two years when they went on to win the Cup. Washington's only prior playoff series win over the Penguins was in 1994.

The Capitals with Ovechkin had gone 0-6 when they were within one victory of reaching the conference finals until Evgeny Kuznetsov's goal 5:27 into overtime sent Pittsburgh packing and the Capitals into a delighted frenzy of celebrating on the ice.

"Thank God this happened. We move forward and I can't wait," Ovechkin said.

The Capitals have not been so deep into the playoffs since reaching their only Stanley Cup Final in 1998, when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, the history of second-round flops in the Ovechkin era ended at last.

"We believe in each other. The situation is it doesn't matter what happened in the past. We have to stick together," Ovechkin said. "We knew it was there. We just have to battle and we just have to fight through it. It's a great feeling right now and we're going forward."

The year wasn't without some heartache for Ovechkin, who years ago had vowed to be part of the Russian Winter Olympic team at Pyeongchang even if the NHL did not shutdown to send players. It didn't, but Ovechkin abided by rules preventing players from going and watched from afar as his countrymen won gold as Olympic Athletes from Russia.

Ovechkin, the Capitals' captain, scored 49 goals this season to win his seventh NHL goals crown in 11 campaigns. He has 607 career regular-season goals and 54 playoff tallies and finally a berth in the NHL's Final Four.

"Alex's place in history is pretty set and now he has said he doesn't care about individual accolades," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said. "He wants the team to win."

This year, Ovechkin has eight goals and seven assists in 12 playoff games.

It will also be the first conference final for Capitals coach Barry Trotz, a 55-year-old Canadian who guided the Nashville Predators for their first 15 NHL seasons before joining the Capitals for the 2014-15 campaign.

- Vegas on fairy-tale run -

The Predators, who lost last year's final to Pittsburgh, could yet face Trotz's new team in this year's Stanley Cup Final, as they face a seventh game Thursday in their Western Conference second-round series against the Winnipeg Jets, trying to become the first Canadian club to lift the trophy since the 1993 Montreal Canadiens.

But the Capitals face a Tampa Bay club that's into the Eastern Conference Final for the third time in four seasons, having lost to Pittsburgh in 2016 and beaten the New York Rangers to reach the 2015 final, only to lose to Chicago.

And the Nashville-Winnipeg survivor will face the fairy-tale Vegas Golden Knights, a first-year expansion club threatening to capture the crown in the greatest inaugural run by a newcomer in major US sports history.

The Golden Knights became only the third team in NHL history to win two playoff series in its inaugural season when they downed San Jose in the second round.