After another playoff disappointment from the Washington Capitals, I’ve started to explore some of the biggest losses in Washington, DC sports since 1992, the year a DC team last won a title in any of the big four professional sports leagues using Bill Simmons’ “Levels of Losing 2.0″ standard. You can find Part 1 of this series here.
LEVEL 12: THE SUDDEN DEATH
Is there another fan experience quite like overtime hockey, when every slap shot, breakaway and centering pass might spell doom, and losing feels 10 times worse than winning feels good (if that makes sense)? … There’s only one mitigating factor: When OT periods start piling up and you lose the capacity to care anymore, invariably you start rooting for the game to just end, just so you don’t suffer a heart attack.
The Capitals have been through a number of these things in their history, and it comes to reason that every appearance on this list has been a loss. For older fans, the obvious example would be Game 7 of the 1987 first round series with the Islanders, with Pat LaFontaine scoring in the fourth overtime, but since that doesn’t fit the parameters of what I’m looking for (not only was it before 1992, but it was also before I was even born), I’ll have to go with another game.
Case 1: Pittsburgh 3, Washington 2 (4OT) (1996 NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 4)
Case 2: New York Rangers 2, Washington 1 (3OT) (2012 NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 3)
I couldn’t choose between either of these because they were both insane in their own ways. Both were home games, both took place on Wednesday night (into Thursday morning), neither were elimination games, and both ended with the (all-too-common) raucous cheers of opposing fanbases as their teams scored game-winning goals.
I don’t have a firsthand memory of the 1996 game, but any game that ends after 2 a.m. on a weeknight HAS to have fans of both teams just wanting someone to just score already so they can go home and go to work. And believe it or not, the game was just seconds away from needing at least a FIFTH overtime. Considering that the Blue Line of the Metro hadn’t yet stretched out to where the Cap Centre/USAir/whatever that place was called, there probably weren’t too many stranded spectators there that used public transportation. With all the issues with the Metro today, keeping the system open for a game this long would be a tough sell.
As seemingly customary with Washington, there were tons of missed opportunities. They were up 2-1 when Mario Lemieux was ejected at the end of the 2nd period, and they couldn’t take advantage. They had tons of shots in the first overtime period. The puck came inches away from going in when it was swept away to safety in the second overtime. The Caps were even given a penalty shot shortly after that when a Penguin unhinged the net from its moorings, but Joe Juneau couldn’t get a clean shot off his stick. A few overtimes later, Petr Nedved’s shot from the left circle somehow got past several bodies in front of the net and past Olaf Kolzig for the win.
16 years later, the Capitals found themselves in another marathon match. Luckily, this one took place in Chinatown, and the Metro stayed open for an extra hour, so transportation was not as much of an issue. This one, though, kept fans of both teams on edge with chances going both ways in the extra sessions and pucks hitting posts left and right until Marian Gaborik finally let fans go to bed with his triple-overtime winner.
LEVEL 11: DEAD MAN WALKING
Applies to any playoff series in which your team remains “alive,” but they just suffered a loss so catastrophic and so harrowing that there’s no possible way they can bounce back. … Especially disheartening because you wave the white flag mentally, but there’s a tiny part of you still holding out hope for a miraculous momentum change. … So you’ve given up, but you’re still getting hurt, if that makes sense. … Just for the record, the 2002 Nets and 2005 Astros proved that you can fight off The Dead Man Walking Game, but it doesn’t happen often.
Case: Indiana 95, Washington 92 (2014 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 4)
“Walking” being the operative word here. Looking at you, Roy Hibbert.
The Wizards returned to the playoffs for the first time since the Gilbert Arenas/Antawn Jamison/Caron Butler years in 2014. It surprised me when they got past Chicago in just five games, and it looked like they’d give Indiana a competitive series (which they did to a point).
Washington trailed the series 2-1 (that win coming due in large part to Hibbert posting another historically awful performance in Game 1…and that was the second time that postseason that he had a 0 point, 0 rebound performance) and faced a must-win Game 4. They held a 19-point lead early in the 3rd quarter, but that lead quickly evaporated when the former Georgetown center began contributing again and Paul George caught fire from the field, scoring 28 of his 39 points in the second half.
Yet despite completely losing the lead early in the 4th, the Wiz still opened up a nine-point lead halfway through the period, primed to even the series at 2-2. Naturally, though, George helped shoot the Pacers back into the game, and eventually, the lead. Hibbert would then receive a pass in the post,
travel pivot a few times, and score on a baby hook shot. The last Wizards possession encapsulated the Randy Wittman era in late game situations. Down by three, Trevor Ariza throws the ball away and the Wizards don’t even get a shot off. While the Wizards were still technically alive in the series (and even took Game 5 on the road!), it would have been too tall a task to come all the way back to win the series.
LEVEL 10: THE MONKEY WRENCH
Any situation in which either (A) the manager/coach of your team made an idiotic game decision or (B) a referee/umpire robbed your team of impending victory. … The Monkey Wrench Game gains steam as the days and months roll along. … The Patriots and Raiders deserve special mention here because they played two Monkey Wrench games 26 years apart — the ’76 playoff game (when Ben Dreith’s dubious “roughing the passer” call on “Sugar Bear” Hamilton gave the Raiders second life), and the infamous Snow Game (the Brady fumble/nonfumble). … Funny how life works out.
As an honorable mention, the Joe Gibbs II era had a few of these, mainly owing to how much the game had changed in the 11 seasons between stints with Washington. The most notable of these was the 2007 game against Buffalo in the first game since Sean Taylor was killed. As Buffalo lined up to kick what would have been a 51-yard field goal, Gibbs called two timeouts consecutively to try to ice the kicker, which resulted in an 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Rian Lindell would make the 36-yard kick and win it for the Bills, spoiling what would have been a huge emotional boost for the Redskins at the time. All things considered, the blunder did not affect their playoff chances, as they got in anyway.
This also could have been a “Dead Man Walking” game, but I put it here for one reason.
After their second NL East title in three years, the Nationals were once again favorites to reach the World Series. The Giants won Game 1, and Game 2 wound up being the longest postseason game in baseball history. The only problem is that the game shouldn’t have even lasted half as long as it did.
This was a pitcher’s duel between Jordan Zimmermann (who had thrown a no-hitter in the final game of the season) and Tim Hudson. Anthony Rendon’s RBI single in the third inning was the only run of the game for the first eight innings.
Zimmermann pitched eight shutout innings, allowed three hits, struck out five, and retired 18 straight batters entering the 9th inning. He continued to pitch effectively in the 9th, striking out the first batter he faced and inducing a fly ball out from the second, bringing the Nats one out away from victory.
Enter rookie manager Matt Williams and home plate umpire Vic Carapazza. Zimmermann tries to paint the outside corner of the plate on the first two pitches against Joe Panik, and both pitches looked to be close enough to be called strikes, but Carapazza calls both pitches balls, irking Zimmermann and many of the 44,035 in attendance at Nationals Park. Carapazza had been calling a consistent game behind the plate up until that moment, as according to FanGraphs, Zimmermann was getting the outside corner called in his favor all game. After falling behind in the count, Zimmermann is unable to recover and walks Panik after three more pitches.
While Zimmermann had just reached 100 pitches on the game, he hadn’t really shown any signs of slowing down, but Williams pulls him in favor of Drew Storen. While Storen had the best season of his career, reclaiming the closer role after Rafael Soriano proved too inconsistent, you couldn’t help but wonder how Storen would respond in his first postseason appearance since a certain game which I will get to later in this countdown. Needless to say, Storen gives up a hit to Buster Posey on his first pitch, and two pitches later, he gives up a double down the left field line to Pablo Sandoval, scoring Panik from second and tying the game, and laying the foundation for enough extra innings to stand alone as a regulation game. Brandon Belt would hit the go-ahead home run in the top of 18th inning and the Giants would close out the Nats in the bottom of the inning.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to rip Williams for pulling Zimmermann for Storen after the fact. To be fair, some have made decent arguments supporting Williams’ decision to go with his closer with the heart of San Francisco’s order coming up. But either way, we might not even be having this discussion had the Nats’ 3-6 hitters Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond, and Bryce Harper done any better than go a combined 2-for-28 with no extra base hits or any hits with runners in scoring position.
As for the umpiring, it’s also worth noting that some Nationals hitters, particularly Bryce Harper and Asdrubal Cabrera, also had issues with Carapazza’s zone in extra innings. In fact, both Cabrera and Williams were ejected from the game in the 10th inning for arguing balls and strikes. A frustrating game all around.
LEVEL 9: THE FULL-FLEDGED BUTT-KICKING
Sometimes you can tell right away when it isn’t your team’s day. … And that’s the worst part, not just the epiphany but everything that follows — every botched play; every turnover; every instance where someone on your team quits; every “deer in the headlights” look; every time an announcer says, “They can’t get anything going”; every shot of the opponents celebrating; every time you look at the score and think to yourself, “Well, if we score here and force a turnover, maybe we’ll get some momentum,” but you know it’s not going to happen, because you’re already 30 points down. … You just want it to end, and it won’t end. … But you can’t look away. … It’s the sports fan’s equivalent to a three-hour torture session.
I’m going to need to squeeze two of these in here, because they’re both too significant on their own to leave out, and they don’t really fit anywhere else.
Case 1: Pittsburgh 6, Washington 2 (2009 NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 7)
It was the series that the NHL probably (not-so?) secretly wanted. Penguins-Capitals. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, the two young stars of the game at the time, going face to face in what would become a 7-game series. The series had a Game 2 in which Ovi and Sid would post dueling hat tricks. There were three overtime games. In fact, five of the first six games were decided by one goal. So you would think that Game 7 would offer more of the same riveting hockey as the first six games, right?
Ovechkin would have the first chance on a breakaway. He closes in, goes glove side on Marc-Andre Fleury. And somehow, from point-blank range, Fleury snags it out of midair. Uh-oh.
Then the Penguins get a power play, and of course, they take advantage. Crosby cleans up a rebound from ex-Cap Sergei Gonchar and the Penguins are on the board first. Ouch.
But wait. Before Semyon Varlamov can even settle back into his crease, he gets five-holed by Craig Adams eight seconds after the faceoff. Double ouch.
Then the second period starts, and we’re not even a minute in, and it’s the ancient Bill Guerin blazing a slapper past Varlamov. Triple ouch.
A few minutes later, and Kris Letang joins the party with a goal from the right circle, which turned out the be the knockout blow for Varlamov as Bruce Boudreau pulls him. Cue the shots of dejected fans and a crestfallen Ovechkin on the Versus feed. And we still haven’t even gotten through three minutes in the second period.
…Wait. You thought Jose Theodore would come away unscathed? Thanks to some lackluster defense, the Penguins tic-tac-toe their way to a Jordan Staal goal to make it 5-0. It’s gotten so bad that Ovechkin has stopped trying to hit the Penguins and is plowing over his own teammates.
Oh, there you are, Ovechkin, taking an ill-advised pass from Fleury behind his own goal and putting it in. Hooray for stat-padding, I guess?
Fittingly, this game is effectively bookended by breakaway chances, as Crosby calmly skates in on Theodore’s goal and slides one through the five-hole. Here’s where you fire up the old Simpsons “Stop, stop, he’s already dead” clip. (Brooks Laich did score a garbage-time goal afterward, but the damage had already been done.)
For a moment, it looked like Game 6 of Crosby-Ovechkin II would go down this path, but Washington showed some fight there to send it to overtime. But that one ended badly, too.
(Side note: I was in a makeshift sports newsroom at NBC4 on my first day at an internship there [the main one was undergoing a renovation at the time], logging the footage and highlights of this curbstomping.)
Yeah, I know, this ultimately meant nothing in terms of the playoffs. But it was 28-0 before anyone could settle down in their seat. Quite possibly the most embarrassing effort I’ve ever seen this team put forth. If there was an “Inexcusable White Flag” level, this would go there.
But as verbose as I’ve been in this piece, I think it’s best that I just defer to Chad Dukes and LaVar Arrington on this one.
So many memorable bits from that.
Chad: [on Albert Haynesworth] HE’S DOING THE WORM, LAVAR!
LaVar: It looked like he was just dead.
Plus, all of LaVar’s “GET ‘EM!”‘s, wishing JoePa was around to kick people off the team left and right (although knowing what we know now about him…eh, no comment), wanting reparations, and the part about wanting a kid so he can use all of the “burgundy and gold diapers” in his closet. Classic.
The Swinging Gate game against the Giants in ’09 as Jim Zorn has one foot out the door would also qualify as this “Inexcusable White Flag” subcategory. Let’s just say Monday night games at home are disasters waiting to happen.
Levels 8 through 5 are still to come when I post Part 3 tomorrow.