The Washington Capitals have finally done it.
After several years of trying and failing, they’ve finally conquered what seemed to be an insurmountable roadblock. In the words of play-by-play announcer John Walton, “the demons have been exorcised!”
With their 2-1 overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins Monday night, not only have they beaten the Penguins in a playoff series for the first time since 1994 in their eighth postseason meeting since, not only have they reached the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since Alex Ovechkin joined the team in 2005, but they were also the first major D.C. professional sports team to reach the final four round of the playoffs since 1998, which had been the second-longest such drought of any major professional sports city in the United States (only Cincinnati has gone longer without a Conference Final or League Championship Series). When you consider that this city has had four major pro sports teams for all but six of those years and had combined for 72 team seasons without reaching that round of the playoffs, the most of any city in North America, the significance of last night’s win looms larger.
I know what some of you are probably thinking: if the Caps get swept in the next round, what was this all for? They don’t give Stanley Cups–or even Prince of Wales Trophies–for just reaching the conference finals. And in a way, you’d be right. The Caps have only gotten halfway to their goal. The players themselves would tell you as such.
But for D.C. sports fans, this is bigger. The team that has come to epitomize this city’s reputation as a city of chokers has gotten the proverbial 800-pound gorilla off its back. I’ve discussed this whole issue at length before. At very great length, in fact. With every successive playoff failure from perceived championship favorites like the Capitals and the Nationals of MLB–each Petr Nedved quadruple overtime dagger, blown 3-1 series lead, upset at the hands of several otherworldly performances from Jaroslav Halak, blowout in a Game 7 at home, blown six-run lead in a winner-take-all game, failure to record the final strike to advance to the next round on two separate occasions, uncalled case of batter’s interference, and overturned call on a slow-motion replay technicality–a sense of playoff malaise, of fan apathy, had started to set in to the minds of many fans. Whenever the performance of the Capitals came up in conversation, one of my coworkers would offer this common refrain: “nothing they do matters until the playoffs.”
As a result, fans become conditioned to expect the worst and never let their guards down, making it very difficult to just “enjoy the ride” rather than fixate on the ultimate destination. When the Capitals dropped the first two games of their first round series at home against Columbus after blowing multiple leads in both games, I would forgive anyone thinking “not again!” Even with analysts lowering their expectations of the team this season due to offseason departures, it’s hard to blame D.C. fans to revert to panic mode when another lower-seeded team threatens to eliminate the Caps from the playoffs.
But somehow, this team got off the canvas and reeled off four straight, including two overtime victories, to take the series. And then to not only get past the second round, but to beat the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, of all teams? Forgive the fans for feeling any emotion between relief and elation.
A win like this has the potential to be a complete game-changer, not only for the Capitals, but for the entire city of Washington, D.C. Fans suddenly have a reason to feel optimistic and energized about their teams in the playoffs and will actually want to make it to Capital One Arena and show their support. Game 3 of this upcoming series against Tampa Bay will be the most anticipated home game in almost 20 years for this city regardless of who wins the first two games. And, fair or not, no one will have a good reason to project the same pessimism of the failures of the Capitals in the playoffs onto either of the other local teams anymore. No longer will fans hold back their support for their teams out of fear of disappointment. The pressure is finally off.
While no hard evidence exists of this phenomenon, it’s hard for me to imagine that the Boston Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series did not carry over and also help them win the Series in 2007 and 2013. That the team no longer had the franchise’s failures of the past projected onto them by their fans in every critical situation, and thus did not have to hear or think about the Curse of the Bambino over and over again, had to allow them to perform more relaxed than they likely would’ve otherwise (in fact, ever since then, their fans will always be the first to remind everyone of their teams’ success–to the consternation of anyone within earshot). With that said, it will be interesting to see if a similar carryover effect occurs with the Chicago Cubs, Philadelphia Eagles, or the Cleveland Cavaliers (and by extension, the rest of the city of Cleveland) after each of their recent championships.
Once again, the Capitals still have work to do starting in Game 1 against the Lightning, and they won’t be hanging any banners at 7th and F for losing in a conference final (and if they do decide to hang one, the franchise will deserve any and all mockery that goes in their direction). But that doesn’t mean that the team didn’t make a huge stride in the right direction not just for themselves, but for an entire generation of sports fans in this city. Celebrate now, but push the team on even further beginning Friday night.