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. Here are Part 1 and Part 2 for reference.
LEVEL 8: THE “THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING”
The sibling of the Full-Fledged Butt-Kicking. … You’re supposed to win, you expect to win, the game is a mere formality. … Suddenly your team falls behind, your opponents are fired up, the clock is ticking and it dawns on you for the first time, “Oh, my God, this can’t be happening.”
Case: Washington vs. Montreal (2010 NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals)
This series may have had the biggest impact in shaping the pessimistic psyche of Caps fans today. Even in this year’s series with Philadelphia, one couldn’t help but have flashbacks to the Montreal series when the Flyers won Games 4 and 5 behind stellar goaltending from Michal Neuvirth. Here goes.
After the season that ended with the game right behind this in the countdown, the Capitals were primed to take the league by storm. A franchise-record points total. The President’s Trophy. A franchise record for goals scored and standings points accumulated. It was setting up for a long playoff run.
It even started out well against the Canadiens, too. The Caps break their playoff overtime losing streak at home. They knocked out Jaroslav Halak in Game 3 and owned Carey Price in Game 4, both in Montreal. Then we find out that New Jersey was upset by Philadelphia, who had sneaked into the playoffs by winning a shootout on the final game of the season against the Rangers, so it looks like the stars are aligning for a long playoff run.
Then Halak comes back in Game 5, and the Habs jumped out in front 2-0 early. No big deal; the Caps have come back from that already this series. Alex Ovechkin scores early in the 2nd, and now you’d expect the Caps to take over and shut it down. But Montreal was able to stave off Washington’s power plays, and Halak continued to play well in net, and the Habs win. Oh well, they’ll just clinch in Montreal.
On to Game 6…Raucous Bell Centre crowd. Caps are still outshooting Montreal, so maybe they’ll get a foothold and quiet the cr–great. Two goals within two minutes of each other in the first period, including an inexcusable softie on the part of Semyon Varlamov. OK. They get a few power plays (including a 5-on-3), but nothing. Second period, outshoot them 14-3. Still nothing. More great saves from Halak. And with every big save, those crazy Canadiens fans’ cheers get louder and louder. And then they make Washington pay for their ineptitude early in the third with a Maxim Lapierre goal to make it 3-0. Then the Caps get a power play and Halak displays Exhibit A of a hot goalie standing on his head in the playoffs, scrambling in his crease to make save after save. Eric Fehr does break through in the 3rd, but it’s not enough. Halak would go on to make 53 saves. Montreal would score an empty-netter, and you could see that the underdogs and their fans believed they could pull off the upset. Another case where “Dead Man Walking” would apply for pessimists.
Game 7. Back in DC. More of the same pressure on the Montreal net early on, but without the early deficit. At least not until some cruel poetic justice was served. Montreal converted on a 4-on-3 power play (thanks to who else but Mike Green, quite possibly the worst defenseman on the team, who also committed five other penalties that series) with just seconds to go in the 1st period to go ahead 1-0 on their sixth power play goal of the series. The best power play in the regular season had been silenced since after Game 4, and Montreal was taking advantage of its scant chances. Now the unthinkable was starting creep in the minds of Caps fans. Did they win all of those games in the regular season for nothing? Were they frauds that amassed 121 points on the backs of the “Southleast Division?”
Early in the 3rd, it looked like Washington had broken through. Ovechkin wristed one from the left circle past Halak, but it was immediately and controversially waved off for goalie interference because Mike Knuble was apparently impeding Halak’s ability to play his position, even though the contact was minimal and incidental at most. Now we’re getting into dangerous territory.
A similar situation happened on the other end as Montreal looked like they had opened up a two-goal lead. Lapierre crashed the net after Varlamov made a save and tried to cover up, but the whistle had blown just as the puck trickled across the goal line while Varlamov was being pushed into by both Lapierre and Joe Corvo of Washington. After review, the referee cited goalie interference for disallowing the goal. So maybe the Caps had one go their way. As the third period marched on, Montreal retreated into a shell, content on defending what they had. One clearance from Hal Gill (one of their many gritty defensemen who, like Halak, stepped their game up in Games 5-7) was what decided it all. Green (yes, the same Green that took the penalty leading to Montreal’s first goal and the same Green who has proven useless in clutch situations) tried to retrieve the puck and check an oncoming Lapierre at the same time, but he could only do one of those, and with John Carlson nowhere to be found to clean up the mess, Dominic Moore took the puck unimpeded and threw the dagger past Varlamov. Cue the celebration shots from the Canadiens bench, shots of a despondent Bruce Boudreau and Ted Leonsis, shots of catatonic Caps fans wondering, “what in the wide world of f**k is happening to my hockey team?” and the token shots of what might’ve been the only two Habs fans in the house that night, overjoyed and taking it all in.
Laich would tally on a rebound roughly a minute later to give the fans some hope, and the Caps would continue to press on and even get a last-ditch power play and go 6-on-4 for the last 1:44, but they could hardly establish themselves in the Montreal zone. With every clearance down the ice and towards the empty net (and, due to the Canadiens being shorthanded, they could ice the puck without consequence), the same thoughts were going through the heads of Capitals fans.
This isn’t happening. This can’t be happening.
But it happened.
Another blown 3-1 series lead happened.
1-for-33 on the power play happened.
Jaroslav Halak putting up the performance of his life happened.
The President’s Trophy winner being cut down by an 8-seed happened.
It all happened.
LEVEL 7: THE DRIVE-BY SHOOTING
A first cousin of The “This Can’t Be Happening” Game, we created this one four weeks ago to describe any college football upset in which a 30-point underdog shocks a top-5 team in front of 108,000 of its fans and kills its title hopes before Labor Day. Just for the record, the “Drive-By Shooting” can only happen in college football.
Okay, so I lied. I’ll throw a bone to college football right now but only in passing, because believe it or not, there is a somewhat local example, since there are several fans in the DC area.
Virginia Tech’s loss to James Madison in 2010 was just the second time since the NCAA split its top division into two subdivisions in 1978 that a team from the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA) defeated a ranked team from the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly I-A). The first, of course, was the Appalachian State-Michigan game alluded to in the description. While the Hokies had an outside chance at competing for a national title, they had already lost to Boise State the previous weekend, and getting back into the title race would have been difficult. But this loss virtually killed those chances, although Tech would win the rest of its regular season games en route to another ACC title and a BCS bowl. But it’s still a bit of a stretch to call a university almost 200 miles away from the farthest part of Northern Virginia to still be considered part of the DC metropolitan area a DC sports team, so I’ll pass. Plus, this isn’t a big college football city, and many who care about college football all usually have different schools they support. Notice how on this map, neither Maryland nor Virginia Tech (the two most popular schools in the region) have any ZIP code with a majority of fans in the DC area, outside of Maryland’s College Park campus and the area surrounding it.
LEVEL 6: THE BROKEN AXLE
When the wheels come flying off in a big game, leading to a complete collapse down the stretch. … This one works best for basketball, like Game 3 of the Celtics-Nets series in 2002, or Game 7 of the Blazers-Lakers series in 2000. … You know when it’s happening because (A) the home crowd pushes their team to another level, and (B) the team that’s collapsing becomes afflicted with Deer-In-The-Headlitis. … It’s always fascinating to see how teams bounce back from The Broken Axle Game. … By the way, nobody has been involved in more Broken Axle Games than Rick Adelman.
There weren’t many of these kinds of losses as described here (and the Wizards have not been relevant enough to have that many big games, so this won’t be about basketball), but I’ll try to put my own spin on this. I’m not sure if the Cowboys’ comeback from 21 points down in the 1999 opener capped by Troy Aikman hitting Rocket Ismail in overtime counts as a “big game,” even though it fits the bill otherwise, so I decided to pass on that. I did, however, add two examples, including one from the 1999 season.
Case 1: Detroit 5, Washington 4 (1998 Stanley Cup Final Game 2)
As pointed out in the beginning of this post, this was still the last time that a DC sports team had made the championship round of any of the major sports, and it had been the only time this has happened since 1992.
While the Capitals didn’t have the high-flying offensive machines that they would be known for in the Ovechkin years, this was still a great team with an elite goalscorer in Peter Bondra and veterans Adam Oates, Joe Juneau and Dale Hunter putting up solid seasons. Kolzig, or “Olie the Goalie” as he was known, ranked among the top goaltenders in hockey that year. Veteran winger Esa Tikkanen was acquired from Florida mid-season and provided a much-needed boost to the team.
Washington took out Boston, Ottawa, and Buffalo in the Eastern Conference half of the playoffs, setting up a Stanley Cup final with the Red Wings, who were looking to defend their title. After the Caps dropped Game 1, they opened up a 4-2 lead in the third period of Game 2 when Juneau, who scored the series-winning goal against Buffalo in overtime in the previous round, put one past Chris Osgood. Midway through the period, Martin Lapointe scored to reduce the lead to 4-3. Shortly after, Washington had a chance to take full control of the game and potentially change the series when Tikkanen intercepts a pass, skates in on Osgood, fakes a slap shot and gets Osgood to go for the fake, skates around him with an open net in front of him…and shoots the puck through the crease and wide of the goal. Suddenly, the fans at Joe Louis Arena were at full throat, and Detroit had the momentum. Later in the period, after constant pressure, the Red Wings would tie the score at 4 and send it to overtime, and late into the first overtime, Kris Draper backhanded a pass from Lapointe past the glove side of Kolzig for the 5-4 win and a 2-0 lead. Detroit would sweep the series and win their second straight Stanley Cup.
While the Caps probably don’t win the series even if Tikkanen scores, and while it’s not guaranteed that they even win that particular game, anything can happen in hockey, and a split in Hockeytown would have done wonders for Washington’s confidence heading home. But they had already been faced with a tall mountain to climb, going against a team with eight eventual Hall of Famers, including the coach. Giving that team in that building another lifeline is asking for trouble.
(Side note: That highlight video reminded me of two things: 1) Gary Thorne had the quintessential hockey voice, and it’s unfortunate that he’s not doing NHL anymore (but Doc Emrick is just as good), and 2) the two-line pass rule actually existed once upon a time.)
Case 2: Tampa Bay 14, Washington 13 (1999-2000 NFC Divisional Round
This was a defensive struggle of the highest order. Tampa Bay’s elite defense held the Redskins to just 6 points and 157 yards, but their offense, led by rookie quarterback Shaun King, did very little in the way of moving the ball against one of the lower-ranked defenses in the league, logging just 186 yards of their own. Washington led 13-0 thanks to Brian Mitchell running the second-half opening kickoff back for a touchdown and two field goals from Brett Conway, one of which happened after a Darrell Green interception.
Later in the 3rd, Brad Johnson would force a deep ball into coverage, but John Lynch makes an easy interception, and now the Raymond James Stadium crowd comes back to life. A few completions from King and a drawn pass-interference penalty later, and they’re on the doorstep. Enter Mike Alstott, one of the biggest nuisances for defenses to tackle in recent memory, especially in short-yardage situations. It showed on consecutive plays, the second of which was a 2-yard touchdown run where he tried to run right, found no running room, bounced off of would-be tacklers, turns around and runs in the opposite direction, and outruns everyone to reach the endzone. It’s the archetypal NFL Primetime highlight where you would hear Chris Berman make those voiceless “boom, boom, boom” noises (such as the last highlight in this video).
The Bucs’ defense shows up again in the 4th with a blindside strip-sack from Steve White with Warren Sapp recovering the fumble. But if you needed any more proof that this would end disastrously, look no further than the ensuing possession. It looked like Washington’s defense would return the favor with a strip-sack from Shawn Barber (on a 3rd down, even!), but out of nowhere, Warrick Dunn scoops up the football and dashes for a first down. Uh-oh. A fourth-down conversion later, and Tampa Bay jumps in front by a point.
Yet somehow, Washington still has a chance to win, and they even get close enough to try a go-ahead field goal with a little more than a minute left. While it would have been a difficult field goal for Conway, making only 3 of 9 attempts from beyond 50 yards that season, we’ll never know for sure if he would have made it, as Dan Turk made an errant snap and the field goal was never attempted. Tampa Bay would run out the clock for the win. Heartbreak city indeed.
For Turk, a solid NFL career at center ended with unfortunate struggles as the long snapper in his final season. Sadly, he literally couldn’t live his mistake down, as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer months after the game and passed away that Christmas Eve.
LEVEL 5: THE ROLE REVERSAL
Any rivalry in which one team dominated another team for an extended period of time, then the perennial loser improbably turned the tables. … Like when Beecher fought back against Schillinger in “Oz,” knocked him out and even pulled a Najeh Davenport on his face. For the fans of the vanquished team, the most crushing part of the “Role Reversal” isn’t the actual defeat as much as the loss of an ongoing edge over the fans from the other team. You lose the jokes, the arrogance and the unwavering confidence that the other team can’t beat you. There’s almost a karmic shift. You can feel it.
I’m actually going to include a win for this one because of its significance in the rivalry. As for the loss, it may not actually be a rivalry, but it does involve a breaking of a lengthy losing streak.
Case 1: Detroit 33, Washington 17 (1999 NFL season, Week 13)
Not much outside of the game was significant except that the Lions broke an 18-game losing streak dating back to their last victory against Washington in 1965. After all, both teams would make the playoffs, and the ‘Skins would win their head-to-head meeting in the Wild Card round. In the eight total meetings since this loss, Detroit has gone 4-4, but two of those wins had significance.
The 2009 game was embarrassing as Washington became the team that ended the Lions’ 19-game losing streak which included the infamous 0-16 season. One of the many reasons why the Jim Zorn era was a nightmare.
The 2013 win was the first ever road win in the DC area and the first road win since the ‘Skins were in Boston back in 1935.
Case 2: Washington 14, Dallas 13 (2005 NFL season, Week 2)
It’s well established that tons of Cowboys fans live in this area and are anywhere between the second- and fourth-most popular team in the region. For a time between 1997 and 2004, their fans have held all of the bragging rights in this historic rivalry. The only exception during this time was a practically meaningless game at the end of the 2002 season, which also happened to be the final game of the illustrious careers of Darrell Green and Emmitt Smith (and before anyone says it, no, those two Arizona years never happened; stop hallucinating). But during that time, there were last-second field goals, complete second-half collapses, and full-blown beatdowns, all in Dallas’ favor.
This was a mostly defensive battle throughout, with the only touchdown being 70-yard flea flicker pass from Drew Bledsoe to Terry Glenn (both former teammates in New England, also under Bill Parcells) which you can see at the end of this video. After Dallas stretched the lead to 13-0 midway through the fourth quarter, the Monday Night Football production crew at ABC decides to run a graphic detailing the success of Parcells-coached teams with a lead of at least 13 points in fourth quarters.
It’s as if someone watching the broadcast relayed the graphic to Joe Gibbs and the gang on the sideline. No sooner than the moment that appears on the screen, the comeback begins. After a sack sets up 3rd and 27, 35-year-old Mark Brunell uses his scrambling ability to pick up 25 of those yards back, setting up a 4th-and-2, where Brunell would find James Thrash in the flat to keep the chains moving. Faced with another 4th-and-long, Brunell goes deep and finds Santana Moss in the endzone after he beat Roy Williams deep. Game on.
After forcing a punt, Washington has it with less than three minutes to play. Two plays later, Brunell goes deep again, and again it’s Moss victimizing Williams on the long touchdown catch to put the ‘Skins up 14-13. The Cowboys could not respond in two possessions (including one of Sean Taylor’s memorable hits on would-be receivers), and as the final whistle blew, the Washington sideline exploded in jubilation, celebrating their first win in North Texas since 1995.
The icing on the cake was the Week 15 meeting in Landover. The ‘Skins would inch closer to the playoffs with a 35-7 beatdown. Brunell threw for four touchdowns, Chris Cooley caught three of those, Clinton Portis ran for 112 yards, the defense sacked Bledsoe seven times (with Phillip Daniels getting four of them) and intercepted him three times, and most importantly, after the end of the game, thousands of Cowboys fans in the DC area were silenced for months on end.
What will make the list as the worst losses in recent DC sports history? Find out in Part 4 tomorrow!