After 25 years of broadcasting together, NBC Sports Washington commentators Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin have seen their share of highs and lows covering the Washington Capitals. But no season stands out more in their minds than the one that culminated with a Stanley Cup title.
Beninati and Laughlin launched the “Told It Here!” podcast to look back on some of their favorite memories from their time together. The sixth and final episode of their debut season focused on the 2017-18 campaign, which began with an ominous aura around the team.
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“The expectations were still sky-high, but to me there was an eerie feeling about the Caps the way they opened training camp that season,” Beninati said.
“Seemed like they had a tough time recovering from losing two straight playoff rounds when they thought they should’ve won them the two previous years,” Laughlin added. “This was a time that [there] seemed to be tension because it was either do or die now. Were they gonna win the Cup or were they gonna lose again?”
Washington was coming off three straight seasons in which it had been eliminated in the second round. Each of the previous two times, the Capitals won the President’s Trophy in the regular season only to have the rival Pittsburgh Penguins sending them home packing.
They got off to a bit of a slow start before hitting their stride and claiming the No. 1 seed in the East. That set up a first-round matchup with the Columbus Blue Jackets, who stunned the hockey world by jumping out to a 2-0 series lead. With their backs against the wall, the Capitals took Game 3 with Lars Eller scoring the game-winner in overtime.
“Lars Eller scored as big a goal as you will find in that first-round series, in Game 3 at Nationwide [Arena],” Beninati said. “It wasn’t the prettiest-looking thing, but it counts.”
“When we had Ovi on, he said that was the game-changer. That goal changed around the Capitals’ fortunes. You’re not gonna win being down 3-to-zip. It doesn’t happen in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So that, to me, is still the biggest goal in Caps history.”
After rattling off three more wins in a row to take the series, the Capitals then went on to face the Penguins in the second round. National broadcasters had the rights to the rest of the playoffs from there, so Beninati and Laughlin had to watch the series from the studio. That was where they watched as Evgeny Kuznetsov turned the tables on Pittsburgh with his series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6.
“The reaction that you and I had, that fans had, [was] a sense of relief,” Beninati said. “John Walton says that they’ve exercised their demons on the radio that night. The sense of relief was incredible and you got the sense that Washington — hey, if you’re able to beat Pittsburgh now, maybe you are able to do anything and you’re looking forward to a series with Tampa Bay.”
The Capitals kept rolling into the Eastern Conference Finals against the Lightning, taking the first two games by a combined score of 10-4. Tampa Bay came right back, winning the next three games to push them to the brink of elimination. But Washington responded in dominant fashion with back-to-back shutout wins to punch its ticket to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Going up against the Vegas Golden Knights, the Capitals lost the series opener but took control of the series from there. It all culminated with Game 5 in Vegas, which saw several memorable moments including Braden Holtby’s “The Save,” Devante Smith-Pelly scoring his seventh goal of the playoffs and Eller netting the game-winner in the final period.
“You are about to laugh at me, again,” Beninati told Laughlin. “I told you, I did not see the Holtby save live. Wouldn’t you know it, I don’t see Lars Eller score the game-winning ultimate goal, either. I’m on my way downstairs [to the event level of T-Mobile Arena] when it happens.”
“And did you even hear it?” Laughlin asked.
“Oh, I heard it.”
Both broadcasters were thrilled to see the team they had covered for over two decades finally come through and win a championship. However, Beninati couldn’t help but wish they could’ve been on the call when it happened.
“There was a time, maybe 10 minutes, where I sat quietly by myself and have never been more conflicted in my life,” Beninati said.
“As the time ticked down, and I told you I couldn’t get out to the glass to see the final seconds. Never have I ever been more conflicted in all of my life, in any walk of my life, that we couldn’t — as a team, as a network TV team or local regional rightsholder team — couldn’t put our spin, our thoughts, our words to what was happening. The highlight moment of the franchise’s history, a history that started in 1974, here it is, here’s the grandest moment —”
“— and we weren’t a part of it, really,” Laughlin finished.
Of course, Beninati and Laughlin were a part of it. They brought the Capitals into fans’ living rooms all season, endearing themselves to the fanbase with their insightful commentary and always-entertaining banter. They also shared relationships with many of the coaches and players, even attending a post-championship party where Tom Wilson led chants for each of them to do the honors of hoisting the Cup.
It was a run that no one on the Capitals or in the broadcast booth will ever forget.