J.J. Regan

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3 stars of the game: Burakovsky's big night propels Caps to the Stanley Cup Final

3 stars of the game: Burakovsky's big night propels Caps to the Stanley Cup Final

For just the second time in franchise history, the Capitals are Eastern Conference Champions. They will play the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final after a dominant 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final.

Alex Ovechkin gave the Capitals the lead just 62 seconds into the game. It was a lead they would never relinquish as Braden Holtby recorded his second consecutive shutout.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final will be Monday in Las Vegas.

Here are the three stars of the game.

1. Andre Burakovsky: It's been a rough year for Burakovsky, but all that was erased on Wednesday with his brilliant two-goal performance to lead the Caps.

Washington was clinging to a 1-0 lead in the second period, but the Lightning were buzzing with eight of the first nine shots on goal of the period. They had all the momentum until Burakovsky stole a bouncing puck from Dan Girardi and fired a quick shot far-side for the beautiful goal.

Burakovsky added a second goal later in the second as John Carlson banked a pass off the boards to launch him on a breakaway. Burakovsky coolly shot it through the open five-hole of Vasilevskiy to make it 3-0.

It's incredible to think that Burakovsky had not recorded a point yet this postseason prior to Game 7, was a healthy scratch for Game 5 and was talking about seeing a sports psychologist over the summer after the morning skate for Game 6.

2. Braden Holtby: The goaltending story for much of the series was Andrei Vasilevskiy who led Tampa Bay's comeback in the series with his phenomenal netminding. He was outplayed in the most important games by Holtby, however, who recorded shutouts in both Game 6 and Game 7. The last goal the Lightning scored in the series came 33 seconds into the second period of Game 5. That's 159:27 of continuous play and 60 straight saves for Holtby.

Holtby was phenomenal in Game 7 with big save after big save as the Lightning pushed to tie. His biggest save came in the second period when he denied Alex Killorn on the breakaway. The score was just 2-0 at that point.

This marks just the fifth time a goalie has recorded a shutout in Game 6 and Game 7 in a playoff series.

3. Alex Ovechkin: It took Ovechkin just 62 seconds to put the Capitals ahead and it turned out to be the goal that sent Washington to the Stanley Cup Final. How fitting is it that Ovechkin score the game-winner?

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Referees miss blatant boarding by Paquette on Orpik

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Referees miss blatant boarding by Paquette on Orpik

A rough hit to the back of Brooks Orpik left him down on the ice and slow to get up. Cedric Paquette skated back to his bench and waited for the trainer to attend to Orpik and (probably) for the referees to call his number and send him to the box.

The penalty, however, never came.

You always hear in hockey that if you can see a player's numbers, you should pull up on the hit.

What that refers to is the numbers on the back of a player's jersey. You are not allowed to hit a player directly in the back into the boards.

The official definition of boarding according to the NHL rule book is, "any player who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously." Hitting a player "in the numbers" is a defenseless position.

Apparently Cedric Paquette didn't know that and, unfortunately for the Capitals, neither did the referees.

Someone explain to me how this is not a boarding penalty:

Sometimes referees are put in a tough position because a player turns his back right before they take the hit, thus putting themselves in a vulnerable position to draw a penalty. That was not the case here. Orpik never turned.

When Tom Wilson hit Pittsburgh Penguins forward Zach Aston-Reese in the second period, the hockey world spent the next day debating whether it was an illegal hit. There is no debate here, no grey area. Just a clear board.

And no call.

You can understand referees wanting to put away the whistles for a Game 7, but you have to call the blatant dangerous plays like this. This was a bad miss by the referees, plain and simple.

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Regardless of what happens in Game 7, these are not the 'same old Caps'

Regardless of what happens in Game 7, these are not the 'same old Caps'

These are not the same old Caps.

Heading into Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final on Monday, there was a lot of handwringing around Washington and with good reason. The Capitals were facing elimination for the first time this postseason. Of course the fans were on edge; no one wanted this run to end.

But even though the Caps are competing for the conference crown and have gotten past their archrivals to get here, the refrains leading into Game 6 were the same ones we’ve heard from past years.

 “They don’t want it enough.”

“There’s no heart.”

“Totally outcoached.”

“Chokers.”

And perhaps most damning, “Same old Caps.”

Stop it already.

Seriously, how can anyone have watched this postseason and walked away thinking this is the same Caps team?

Does no one remember the start of the season? Some people didn’t even think they would make the playoffs. Others were advocating the team trade Alex Ovechkin and start over. Yet here they are.

Finally, finally they got past the second round hump. They beat the Pittsburgh Penguins—ending their two-year reign as Stanley Cup Champions—and handed Mike Sullivan his first ever series loss as the Penguins head coach.

And no, Mike Wilbon, just because they made it past the second round doesn’t mean it’s OK to lose in the Conference Finals. But considering how they got there, they showed they have at the very least changed the narrative surrounding the Capitals.

Washington lost the first two games of its series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round and went on to win four straight to advance. In the second round, they faced the two-time defending champions, a team they had beaten only once in the playoffs in franchise history and a team that had not lost a playoff series since 2015.

And they won.

And yet, people are acting like nothing changed with the Caps. Why? Because they lost three in a row to Tampa Bay?

OK, you've got a point. What kind of a team loses three straight in the playoffs? Hard-nosed teams with tough coaches that play the right way like Columbus or Anaheim wouldn’t let that happen to them. Oh, actually Columbus lost four in a row to the Caps and the Ducks got swept in the first round. Never mind.

Well, certainly not a team with a championship history like the Los Angeles Kings. Oh wait, never mind, the got swept by Vegas. Bad example.

Well, surely an original six team with a championship pedigree like the Boston Bruins would never let that happen. Oh yeah, they lost four straight to the same Tampa Bay team.

OK, OK, but were any of those teams really contenders this year? I mean, none of those teams were as good as Winnipeg and they won’t let themselves lose three in a row in the playoffs.

That’s because they lost four straight to Vegas in the conference final.

You see where this is going, right?

It just boggles the mind that anyone could see the game plan Barry Trotz put together in Game 6 in Pittsburgh, without three top-six forwards including Nicklas Backstrom, and win in overtime and still complain that he is always outcoached in the playoffs. He certainly wasn’t outcoached in that game or that series.

It’s baffling that anyone can see how Washington rallied past Columbus after losing Game 1 and Game 2, recovered from a disastrous Game 1 to Pittsburgh and won the first two games in Tampa Bay against a favored Lightning team and complain that this team “doesn’t want it enough.”

Chokers don’t advance to the third round. Chokers don’t beat the two-time defending champions when no one else could. Chokers don’t force seven games against a Tampa Bay team that finished off both of their prior series in just five games.

Just stop. Find a new storyline to push because this one is lazy and played out. It’s been done.

Don’t get me wrong, losing four in a row after winning Game 1 and Game 2 on the road would have really stung. With the history this team has, the fact that they finally got past Pittsburgh gave this team a feel of destiny. If they go on to lose Game 7 and end their run without a Stanley Cup or even a conference crown to show for it, that would be disappointing. No question about it.

But to say these are the “same old Caps” if they lose to Tampa Bay? That’s ridiculous. They have already put those demons to rest. Three straight losses to the Lightning don’t change that and neither will whatever happens in Game 7.

Regardless of what happens on Wednesday, whether the Caps win or lose, no one should come out and say these are the same old Caps. They have already proven that’s not the case.

Those Caps are gone. Now let’s see how far these Caps can go.

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