WASHINGTON, D.C. — Matt Niskanen first starting playing organized hockey in Mountain Iron at the age of 6.
Soon after he began “to realize what the NHL was and what it meant’’ to win a Stanley Cup championship.
About 24 years later, Niskanen and the Washington Capitals made his dream come true by defeating Vegas four games to one to reach his lifelong goal of capturing the Cup.
“Sometime within my first two years’’ of organized hockey, “I started thinking about that exact moment that this happened yesterday (Thursday in Las Vegas),’’ Niskanen said by telephone shortly after landing in Washington.
The Stanley Cup-clinching 4-3 victory brought Niskanen, 31, back to his younger days on the ice.
“It’s hard to describe how cool of a feeling that was when that final buzzer rang,’’ the 2005 Mountain Iron-Buhl graduate said. “The closest thing I can think of is it felt like we were a bunch of 10-year-olds that just won a squirt tournament again. It felt like you were a little kid. We were screaming, jumping, hugging each other. Some guys were crying. I lost my voice within about five minutes. There’s no feeling like it.’’
“I may have appeared to be crying,’’ he added. “But I tell people that I had something in both of my eyes.’’
The Capitals took the 4-3 lead with 7:37 to go, but things didn’t get any easier.
“That was the longest seven minutes of my career,’’ Niskanen said. “That clock couldn’t go fast enough.’’
Add in a clock malfunction at the rink with less than two minutes to go, and the Capitals’ stress level went up a bit.
“That didn’t help my anxiety either,’’ said Niskanen, who played his high school hockey for Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl and college for the University of Minnesota Duluth.
The Capitals made it through the clock problems and “Nisky’’ was on the ice for the final 45 seconds of the championship, “which is nerve-wracking but cool. That’s a pretty cool moment.’’
After the final faceoff with .6 seconds to go went Washington’s way, the celebration began.
Who did Niskanen hug first?
“I think Brett Connolly got be me first. At first I was just jumping up and down like a kid. Then its’ kind of a blur,’’ he said, which included giving Alexander Ovechkin a hug and then making the rounds. “It was hugs all around. It was pretty cool.’’
Niskanen got his chance to hoist the Stanley Cup a short time later. The experience of a lifetime was made even better by getting the Cup passed to him from good friend Brooks Orpik and then handing it off to T.J. Oshie (another northern Minnesota player).
After a team photo, visiting with his wife, 2 1/2-year-old son and his parents (the team owner flew them all to Las Vegas for the game), the real celebration started when the Cup was taken into the Capitals’ locker room.
Niskanen said he and his teammates sprayed champagne, had a couple pops and dumped beer on (head coach Barry) Trotz’s head. We were singing songs and spraying champagne everywhere. That was pretty wild.’’
Of course, the celebration included drinking “a little bit of beer out of the cup right away’’ in the dressing room.
The team ultimately went to a Las Vegas bar until about 4 a.m. before Niskanen and fellow defenseman John Carlson walked back to the hotel. Nisky, Carlson and several others stayed up all night “just shooting the bull and talking memories already.’’
And what everyone on the Iron Range wants to know is if Nisky will be bringing the Cup back to the area when it is his day with the trophy.
The answer is yes, he said.
“The cup is coming to Virginia for sure and Mountain Iron. It will make an appearance in town, and a few other places I’m sure.’’
His best guess is that will take place in late July or early August. The exact date has yet to be determined.
Has winning the Stanley Cup sunk in yet?
“It’s starting to now,’’ Niskanen said, but not completely yet. “It almost feels like we have to rest up and get ready for another series. That’s kind of like the mode we’re in right now (minus the big party Thursday night).
“It doesn’t feel real that we finally did it.’’
Nisky doesn’t know what exactly made this team able to break the Capitals’ 43-year Stanley Cup drought since the team’s inception.
“I don’t have a great answer why this team was different or special, but it was. Something happened in mid-March where things started to click for us and we got on a roll. I think our star players played like studs and we had different contributions from a lot of different depth guys at different times. Braden Holtby was really, really good. The biggest thing is guys played harder for each other. That’s the most committed group I’ve been on.
“I’ve played on some good teams, but that’s the most committed group. I don’t think it was the most talented team on paper, but it’s the best team I’ve played on’’ as far as how well we played. “Man, we played well.’’
Niskanen also wondered — at times — if the championship was ever going to happen.
“The team that we had last year was a pretty incredible lineup and we had a heck of a regular season. We lost game 7 to Pittsburgh and they went on to win it again. In a salary cap world, you’re going to lose some players, so we did and it’s like, ‘Oh man. Are we rebuilding here or what’s going on.’ You start to wonder.’’
However, things came together this season.
“But sure enough, guys got better throughout the year and things really started rolling in mid-march and we became dangerous.’’
Needless to say the Iron Range was on pins and needles as Washington neared the ultimate NHL victory.
After the Stanley Cup was secured, Niskanen’s phone began to blow up with calls and texts. They came from his closest friends who were all really supportive through thick and thin. “I got a couple of nice text messages from former coaches from Virginia, which was really, really cool.’’
He thanked everyone for their support and following him throughout his 11-year career. “It means a lot.’’