LAS VEGAS — It has only been six months, but it feels like a lifetime since the Capitals were last in the visiting locker room at T-Mobile Arena, where they celebrated one of the great days of their lives.
Tom Wilson opened his equipment bag weeks later in Toronto and it still reeked of champagne and beer. The Stanley Cup championship party that raged for a week from one end of the country to the other began for real in a square room just off the ice that was the perfect size for an all-time rager.
“We were wondering if the floors would be new or if we owed them some money,” defenseman John Carlson said when he arrived back in the locker room Monday.
The Capitals have returned to Las Vegas, where they beat the Golden Knights in five games to win the franchise’s first title on June 7, for another rematch tonight. They won the first meeting this year 5-2 at Capital One Arena on Oct. 10.
There was little fanfare when the plane landed in Vegas late Sunday night. Just a few jokes and off to the hotel for sleep after a long day that began with a frustrating 6-5 loss to the Anaheim Ducks in Washington that afternoon.
But this game serves as full closure. The Capitals have now hoisted a banner, handed out championship rings to former teammates Jay Beagle and Philipp Grubauer and done the same for former coach Barry Trotz, now at the helm of the New York Islanders, who gave an emotional speech in the locker room before the two teams played in Brooklyn last week.
Returning to the actual site of their triumph is the final tangible connection to last season. The rest will be memories. Carlson said that he refuses to watch YouTube clips of the celebrations in the T-Mobile dressing room or the week that followed. He remembers all the special moments in his mind. He doesn’t need them replayed. None of them do, really.
“It’s pretty sweet walking into the dressing room that we abused after we won,” forward Brett Connolly joked. “It’ll be a special place forever for all of us – a cool city to win it in.”
Indeed, Vegas didn’t even have a team before last season. To win a championship in the ultimate party city, but which didn’t have a pro team in any major sport until the Golden Knights arrived, gives Washington’s Cup celebration a unique spin.
The locker room at T-Mobile is nicer than most across the NHL. The arena opened in 2016 and it’s a wide, square room with plenty of space for equipment bags. Players aren’t on top of each other like they are at Capital One Arena, which looks like a hall closet in comparison.
In Vegas there is a television against one wall that had Washington’s healthy scratches riveted as Vegas led 2-1 in the third period of Game 5. Defensemen Madison Bowey and Jakub Jerabek, forwards Alex Chiasson, Nathan Walker, Travis Boyd and Shane Gersich and goalie Pheonix Copley had to watch Game 5 from the locker room because the Knights didn’t have a suite available for Caps players.
Suddenly, Devante Smith-Pelly scored to tie the game at 9:52 of the third period and just 2:31 later Lars Eller gave Washington the lead and it was pandemonium. The final minutes were a blur, but the reserves remembered the plan that Rob Tillotson, Washington’s director of team services, had put into place: If the Caps took the lead in the final 10 minutes they were to get into full uniform as fast as possible so they could skate onto the ice with their teammates to celebrate.
“It was just an absolutely wild experience,” Boyd said. “I don’t think I’ve ever put my gear on faster.”
Caps coach Todd Reirden walked into the building with goalie coach Scott Murray on Monday and both men could only smile. Recounting the celebration six months later Reirden said he remembered every detail down to his walk to the rink that day.
“It’s something that was an amazing experience,” Reirden said. “A lot of guys today talked about retracing footsteps - and for me as a coach as well.”
Connolly was one of the last players still on the ice when Alex Ovechkin, with the Cup in his arms, barked at him to get into the locker room. He was with his dad, Pat, and his 80-year-old grandfather. The on-ice celebration lasted 90 minutes - so long that Connolly’s feet began to ache from standing in his skates so long.
Finally, Ovechkin gave the Cup one last kiss on the bench, said “Thank you, Vegas!” and took the trophy down the tunnel and into the locker room to his waiting teammates and the party that was about to explode.
“We had a great night with all our families and friends, everybody was there,” Connolly said. “It’s something that we’ll never forget in a city that will always be special to us.”
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