TAMPA, Fla. — Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin is closer than ever to playing for the Stanley Cup, and he's determined to make the most of the opportunity.
"I've never been in this position before," he said Tuesday, looking ahead to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The winner Wednesday night earns a berth in the Stanley Cup Final opposite the Vegas Golden Knights, who will try for hockey's biggest prize in their inaugural season.
Ovechkin and the Caps are hoping to shed a label as playoff underachievers, a franchise that dazzles during the regular season only to disappoint at the most important time of the year.
"I'm excited. We're all excited. ... We all want to be in this position and move forward," said Ovechkin, who is playing in the conference final for the first time during his prolific 13-year career.
"(Wednesday night) is probably biggest game in my life, this team, organization probably. ... We still haven't reached our goal. Tomorrow is going to be a huge step forward."
Not if the Lightning have their way.
Tampa Bay is playing Game 7 in the conference final for the third time in four years. It beat the New York Rangers on the road to advance to the 2015 Cup Final, but fell short the following year against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Experience is always a good thing, but it's nothing I'm going to sit and lean on," said Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman, who is 7-1 in Game 7s during his career. "It's about doing your job at the highest level you possibly can."
Washington forced Wednesday's winner-take-all matchup with a dominating 3-0 victory in Game 6.
In a series where home ice has not been a clear advantage, the Lightning are hoping it provides an edge in Game 7.
Washington won Games 1 and 2 in Tampa, then dropped the next two at home. The Capitals are 7-2 on the road this postseason.
"When you get this deep into a series, everyone knows each other by heart. Now it really comes down to a little bit of will. You have to will yourself for this moment," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
"I do like the fact there will be 19,000 people helping us, to will us to victory. I want the guys to enjoy the game. It will be a phenomenal experience. ... You just have to remember, don't let the game get bigger than it really is. Go out there, execute, leave everything out there and we'll see what happens."
This will be Washington's 11th Game 7 since the start of the 2008 playoffs, most among all NHL teams in that span. None of them, however, have been for a trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after Monday night's win in Washington that there's no other team he has coached that he would rather lead into a seventh game.
"We just keep taking whatever challenge is thrown at us and build off it. This group doesn't waver. It has a spirit about it, a strong spirit," he said.
"This team has done a lot of special things this year, it's grown, it continues to do that," Trotz added. "What an opportunity going into Tampa. ... We'll see if we can earn the right to keep playing."
And while that undoubtedly would be a major breakthrough for Ovechkin, Trotz reiterated the Capitals all have a lot invested.
"The opportunity is not only for Alex, but for everybody," he said. "Everybody that gets a chance to be in a Game 7, which will allow you to go to the finals. It's exciting, it's fun."