After decades of playoff disappointment, longtime Capitals fans were conditioned to despair in April and May. Our responses to springtime heartbreaks, bad bounces, and tough luck were positively Pavlovian. Game 7 loss. Ding! OT winner sneaking past Holtby. Ding! Blown 3-1 series lead. Ding! As the players dejectedly filed through yet another sad handshake line, fans were left to wonder what might have been and wait until next year.
After each defeat we would console, feel the anger, and curse the hockey gods. By the next October we’d worked through a summer of mourning and found the energy to do it all over again. For over forty years this was just “the way it is.” Fans had grown accustomed to it. Many of us wore our misery like a badge of honor.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to our Summer of Discontent: 2018 Edition. Our guys won. Years of failure and gloom instantly melted away. As the players jumped over the bench to celebrate, we jumped up and down in our living rooms. Tears of anguish changed to tears of joy. Jersey trashing turned to high-five smashing. It’s all been a lot to process. If I ever feel like I’m dreaming I remind myself I attended the parade and watched the many other celebrations from afar.
So, what now, Caps fans? As the team members spend time with Lord Stanley and the players get back in the gym, training camp will soon open. How should we feel about our team? We know the players will face challenges as defending champions, but what about us? As fans, we must reconcile cheering for a defending champ. For many us, having been emotionally invested in this team for so long, it might not be as easy as it sounds. There are basically two extremes for how to handle the upcoming season: either the Caps have high expectations to meet or they can do no wrong.
It’s easy to get greedy when finally fed after such a long drought. T.J Oshie did nothing to quell our high expectations with his parade stage chant of “back to back.” This team is poised for another strong run. The roster is talented and experienced. After years of wondering if the players could ever solve the postseason puzzle, we watched them finally figure out what it takes to win. When the 2019 postseason rolls around, “Here we go again!” will have a different meaning than every previous spring. Repeating is difficult, yet Pittsburgh just accomplished it. It is not unreasonable to think Washington is capable of hoisting again this season. Maybe after unlocking the secret to winning, this team can go on the dynastic run that some expected when the Ovechkin Era began. But is it fair to expect it?
On the other end of the spectrum is the fan that really doesn’t care. After a Cup win, to this fan anything the Caps accomplish this upcoming season is gravy on top. A 0-82 record wouldn’t be great, but guess what, they can’t take away 2018. Of course, most fans fall somewhere in between these two extremes. I think the Capitals have a decent chance to repeat, but will hardly be surprised if they don’t. I do wonder how we fans will react to the adversity the team faces. How long of a honeymoon does the team have if it stumbles out of the opening gate? Will a close loss in a Game 7 be a knee-buckling haymaker as in years past, or will Stanley Cup memories salve the wound? Will we care as much, will we continue to hang on every moment, will we despair if the breaks go against the boys in red?
This is uncharted territory for Capitals fans. Postseason pessimism was a default setting for so many of us. We should never forget all the past disappointments. The Stanley Cup victory galvanizes those bitter memories into a healthy resolve, into a fun righteousness proving us correct for sticking with our Caps for all these years. But this optimistic feeling doesn’t feel comfortable quite yet. Excitement is building as we prepare to cheer for the defending Stanley Cup champions. We know for sure the season will begin with a banner raising. Less certain is how the season will end, and how we will react when it does.
By Bryan Hailey