It’s been a couple of days now since the Washington Capitals crashed out of the NHL playoffs in the second round – again. I can’t believe it’s only been two days; it feels longer – this one really hurt. Being down 3-1 in the series is a death sentence; you’re supposed to lose. And yet… I came to realize that I believed, even then, that the Caps would win not just the series, but their last game of the season – that they would raise the Stanley Cup and exorcise all of the demons. I don’t mean that my brain told me we were going to win – I mean that I Believed we were going to win, with a capital B.
I got the sense that just wasn’t the case for a majority of Caps fans, given the history of the franchise. I was always the one saying, “this year is different. Watch the team, this year is different.” Maybe it’s the fact that I’m also a Ravens fan – I’m used to my team winning when we are the best team; you don’t pay several thousand dollars at age 22 (when you really don’t have the money) to go to the Super Bowl unless you have faith. This year with the Caps, as with the 2012 NFL playoffs when the Ravens won, the question I repeatedly asked myself was very simple: “What if we win?” DC fans, it seems, are more used to losing than they are to winning when it really matters.
The optimism never faded. I was ill for Game 3 and couldn’t watch it, but I woke up to see that everyone agreed the Penguins were outplayed in that game. I watched Game 4 and saw that end in, agonizingly so, in overtime, sending the Caps to that 3-1 series deficit. Around then my brain started telling me, “they’re going to lose – they’ll win Game 5 at home, but they’ll lose Game 6 on the road.” Then came Game 5 – it was just like the previous two games, and while the Penguins had more shots than the Caps did, my eyes told me that the good guys won because they created more dangerous scoring chances; not all shots are created equal.
I took a deep breath, and I entered that “fan zone” to kick off Game 6. Any true sports fan has been there: a game against a team you really hate, which you’re not really expecting to win when it starts, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before you look away. I kept the faith when Pittsburgh scored first, but the hockey gods very much tested that faith when Pittsburgh scored on both halves of a double minor penalty to go up 3-0 in the second period, so much so that I asked the bartender for some more liquid courage to face down the Herculean emotional task of watching the final meltdown. “You were wrong,” the voices in my head whispered. “Everything you said, and everything you believed in all year was a lie. This team is just like all the others – they folded when the pressure was on.”
Only… they didn’t. Not these Capitals. Down 3-0 on the road in an elimination game, T.J. Oshie (one of their big offseason acquisitions) scored with a man advantage right to make it 3-1 before the end of the second period. I told the voices to go away, and just watched the hockey game. And again, my eyes told me that I was right to keep the faith: the Caps came out with some big hits and a heavy fore-checking style to open the third. Now it was me talking to the voices. “Just get one, you only need to be within one when you pull the goalie, and then anything can happen.”
The voices fell silent when the second goal came, and it came quickly. “THESE ARE THE CAPITALS!” Pens fans seemed to be yelling, as a nervous energy crackled through the TV. “THEY ALWAYS BLOW IT UNDER PRESSURE! WHY ARE THEY COMING BACK?” There were still twelve minutes to be played when Justin Williams beat Pens keeper Matt Murray for his customary goal in a big time elimination game. And the clock? Hell, it was barely even a factor at this point – there was over a whopping twelve minutes to go in regulation. That meant ten minutes of five-on-five play before the Capitals would pull goalie Braden Holtby.
“That’s a lot of time for ‘anything’ to happen,” I told the voices.
The Penguins pushed back after the Williams goal, and seemed to carry the better part of the game for the next few minutes, but their dagger wouldn’t land. The teams traded hits and possession; both teams got pucks deep in the opposing zone and there were few mistakes, and then… the proverbial “anything” happened. The Penguins drew three consecutive delay of game penalties, in one of the crazier things I’ve seen in any hockey game, giving the Caps two consecutive 5-on-3 power plays. The first produced only frustration, but then John Carlson exchanged spots with Alex Ovechkin at the point, and… “wait, did he just score?!”
Yes, yes he did, voices in my head. The Penguins overplayed Ovechkin, rightly fearing his shot, but in doing so left Carlson alone to walk down into the slot to rip a massive slap shot through Murray’s blocker, though the Pens’ keeper did get a piece of it. From three goals down, tie game!
To be fair, the Capitals still had additional power play time following the goal, and got still another chance in the third period, but… come on. There just wasn’t any way Washington would lose this game – and then of course, Nick Bonino’s goal ended the Capitals’ season in sudden death overtime.
An image that needs no words…taken before the score board was updated to reflect the Pens OT goal.
It’s hard to imagine a more gut-wrenching way to lose – to come from three goals down probably made the game even more painful. After all, other Caps teams had just folded – in 2009, against the Penguins, they lost 6-2 in Game 7 at home, then again in 2013 (also at home) to the New York Rangers.
But therein lies the rub. Even as the media is quick to say “same old Caps, same old Caps,” if you took the names off of the sweaters, I’m not sure you wouldn’t compare this team to others who happened to catch a hot team at the wrong time… and basically lose a coin flip series. The Capitals lost all four games by only one goal, the last two losses coming on the road in overtime. A bounce here, a bounce there, and the series would still be going on, with Game 7 last night at the Verizon Center.
And the fight that this team showed was different. The 2009 and 2013 teams, especially, had simply thrown in the towel when the rout was on. Hell, after two straight power play goals in about 30 seconds on the road, it should have been on here too. But someone forgot to tell the 2016 Caps that they were supposed to fold.
The team was different this year. Yes, it was still a second round exit, the same as last year, and yes, they still lost to another rival. But the team’s character is different from that of earlier versions, and while they don’t hand out Stanley Cups for being the best team over the course of 82 games, that’s a far larger sample size than the 6 playoff games in which the team was eliminated this spring. And what a ride it was – after watching the Capitals play regular season games, it was sometimes hard to watch other teams play, because they just weren’t as crisp as the boys in red. And what was amazing about it: that was sustained for the entirety of the season. The Capitals never really had a cold streak until they’d clinched the Presidents Trophy and the games didn’t matter.
I get it. Everyone wants the Cup, everyone wants the narrative to fit teams, and Washington is definitely a cursed hockey team. But you know what… they probably were the best hockey team over the course of the season, and almost their entire roster will return next season, barring an unexpected trade. Next year, we bring back the same team. It has more talent than previous squads… and also the character of champions, even in dire straits.
In the years before the Ravens won the 2012 Super Bowl, they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs – twice (and I’m still haunted by the images of Troy Polamalu’s interception return for a touchdown). When you lose to your rival in the postseason, the night of a sports fan can be very dark indeed. But sometimes… the night is darkest before the dawn.
So… lick your wounds. Take a deep breath. Make that long-delayed switch to baseball season.
And let’s get after it next year. #RockTheRed
By: Brendan Majev