LAS VEGAS - With the Stanley Cup to his right and the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP on his left, Alex Ovechkin said it felt like he was dreaming.
But he wasn't - the Washington Capitals, after all the heartbreak, were finally champions.
Lars Eller scored with 7:37 left in regulation as Washington stormed back from a 3-2 deficit in the third period to defeat the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3 on Thursday and take best-of-seven final 4-1 for the Capitals' first Cup.
“It means everything,” said Ovechkin, who scored his 15th goal of the post-season in the second period. “This moment, we've been waiting a long, long time.”
They certainly have.
Washington's 32-year-old workhorse had never been out of the second round of the playoffs before this spring, often unfairly portrayed as the poster boy for the Capitals' post-season failures.
The franchise itself hadn't made the third round since getting swept by the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 - its only other appearance in a final - and had failed to win a title in its 44 years of existence.
That's all in the past now.
“We fight through it,” Ovechkin said. “We worked so hard.”
The victory was also sweet for Washington head coach Barry Trotz, who had the most wins of any bench boss in NHL history (762) without having his name engraved on the Cup before Thursday.
He also doesn't have a contract for next season.
“I approached the whole year the same way,” said Trotz, who added he believes he has a future in Washington. “I got some clarity in my own thought process and just calmed everything down. I've done lots of good things in my life, and I will continue to do that. So I wasn't getting consumed with what was said or what my future holds.
“I'm in a pretty good spot.”
On the Cup-clinching goal, Eller was also in a good spot, quickest to a loose puck sitting behind Marc-Andre Fleury after Brett Connolly's deflected shot squeezed through the Vegas goalie for his seventh of the playoffs.
The Knights tried to write one more chapter in their improbable expansion season, but were unable to find a way as the Capitals spilled on the ice to celebrate.
Elated fans that had travelled from Washington to Las Vegas streamed down from their seats to line the boards after the final buzzer as Ovechkin was first presented the Conn Smythe and then the Cup by commissioner Gary Bettman.
Jakub Vrana and Devante Smith-Pelly also scored for the Capitals, who got 28 saves from Braden Holtby.
Like Ovechkin, Holtby has been around for some dark days in Washington, including a loss after leading the Rangers 3-1 in the second round of the 2015 playoffs - a record fifth time the Capitals blew a 3-1 advantage - before losing at the same stage to the Pittsburgh Penguins the last two springs.
“It's definitely special,” Holtby said. “Just watching some of my teammates lift the Cup for the first time, guys that I've been with here for years. We went through so much heartbreak together, I'm so proud of them. It's an amazing feeling. I couldn't do it with a better group of guys.
“It doesn't come easy. It took years. Years of heartbreak. Years of breaking things down and trying again, breaking things down and trying again, and this group never gave up and we finally did it.”
Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said his team finally understood the level of commitment required to get over the hump.
“We never really knew what it was going to take to win,” he said. “You lose and you think, 'You know, maybe you just didn't get the bounces.'
“Now you see that it takes an entire team to get this job done.”
Reilly Smith, with a goal and an assist, Nate Schmidt and David Perron replied for the Knights. Fleury made 29 saves.
“We worked hard tonight, we competed hard,” Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant said. “Just couldn't beat that team.
“They deserved the Stanley Cup. They were the better team.”
Smith-Pelly tied the game 3-3 at 9:52 of the third period when he stopped Brooks Orpik's point shot with his skate and slid the puck beyond an outstretched Fleury.
Smith snapped a 2-2 tie on a power play for Vegas with 28.2 seconds left in an action-packed second, taking a no-look pass from Alex Tuch after Holtby spilled Shea Theodore's point shot.
Emotions boiled over immediately after the puck entered the net, with Orpik and Knights forward William Karlsson in the middle of the fracas as Vegas took a lead in the series for the first time since late in the opening period of Game 2.
The Knights came close to stretching that advantage early in the third, but Holtby came up with some big stops before his teammates responded.
With the victory, the Capitals ended 26 years of misery for fans of Washington's four major sports teams dating back to the Redskins' 1992 Super Bowl victory.
For the Knights, the loss will sting, but also do nothing to the bond the team forged with its fan base in the wake of unspeakable evil on Oct. 1 - eight days prior to their first regular-season home game - when a gunman killed 58 people and injured hundreds more at an outdoor concert just over a kilometre from T-Mobile Arena.
A team of castoffs calling themselves “The Golden Misfits” came together to stun the hockey world by topping the Pacific Division with an astounding 109 points before breezing through the first three rounds of the Western Conference playoffs with a 12-3 record.
Vegas, which won Game 1, lost four straight for the first time in franchise's brief yet memorable history.
“After you get past the losing here, you can look back and be pretty proud of the group in here and what they've done getting into this community and the city after what happened, and the run we went on,” Knights defenceman Deryk Engelland said. “Everyone had us pegged to not make the playoffs. To be standing here today, as bad as it feels, you've got to be proud.”
Following a scoreless opening 20 minutes, the Capitals got on the board 6:24 into what would become a frantic second when Vrana moved in alone on Fleury and beat him over the glove.
Evgeny Kuznetsov picked up and assist, bringing his NHL-high post-season point total to 32.
Facing elimination for the first time in their history, the Knights tied it at 9:40 when Schmidt's point shot deflected off the skate of Washington defenceman Matt Niskanen.
But Ovechkin drew a tripping penalty and then scored on a one-time snapshot off a pinpoint feed from Nicklas Backstrom to make it 2-1 just 34 seconds later.
Ovechkin's 15th goal of the post-season gave him the outright lead, and set a new Capitals' record for a single playoffs, one more than the 14 that John Druce scored in 1990.
But the Knights responded once again 2:42 after that, this time on a crazy play where Tomas Tatar redirected Colin Miller's shot in off Perron, who was battling with Capitals defenceman Christian Djoos and eventually ended up in the net with the puck.
Washington challenged for goalie interference only to have the call on the ice stand before Smith gave the home side a 3-2 lead after 40 minutes.
But Ovechkin and the Capitals wouldn't be denied.
“We knew this year is going to be our year,” he said. “We just have to believe.”