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The Levels of Losing, DC Sports Edition (Part 4 of 4)

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.  For Levels 16 through 5, see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

And down the stretch we come…

LEVEL 4: THE GUILLOTINE

This one combines the devastation of The Broken Axle Game with sweeping bitterness and hostility. … Your team’s hanging tough (hell, they might even be winning), but you can feel the inevitable breakdown coming, and you keep waiting for the guillotine to drop, and you just know it’s coming — you know it — and when it finally comes, you’re angry that it happened and you’re angry at yourself for contributing to the debilitating karma. … These are the games when people end up whipping their remote controls against a wall or breaking their hands while pounding a coffee table. … Too many of these and you’ll end up in prison.

Here’s another level in which I’ll have to include two games, each from different sports.

Case 1: Seattle 24, Washington 14 (2012-13 NFC Wild Card Round)

Highlights

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DC buzzed with excitement when it was announced that the Rams traded the 2nd overall pick in the 2012 draft to the Redskins with the expectation that the team would take Robert Griffin III. It was thought that they would finally have the franchise quarterback they’d been looking for. It also seemed like no sooner than the trade was announced, independent clothing designers were already working on churning out RG3 hats, shirts, and anything else his likeness could go on.

And his first year here lived up to the hype and more. Griffin won Offensive Rookie of the Year that year, and he led the team to a 10-6 record and its first NFC East title since 1999.

In the Wild Card game against Seattle, Washington cruised in its first two possessions to two touchdowns, but late on that second drive, Griffin rolled to his right and attempted a pass as he was hit out of bounds.  He got up and returned to the huddle with a much more pronounced limp than before, favoring his right knee, which already had a bulky brace draped over it.  Clearly, something wasn’t right.  After the touchdown, he was checked out by the team trainers and doctors.  Apparently, it wasn’t enough of a concern to pull him from the game.

Griffin had initially suffered his injury on the final drive in regulation in Week 14.  Kirk Cousins replaced him and tied the score with a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion run, and the ‘Skins would go on to win in overtime.   Cousins would also start and win the following game before RG3 returned the following week.  Even with Griffin playing well enough to lead the team to the playoffs, his knee was still a ticking time bomb.

Washington’s offense sputtered in the ensuing possessions.  Griffin’s biggest asset all season had been his mobility, and the knee brace and apparent aggravation of the injury all but sapped that away.  Not only that, but his accuracy suffered now that he couldn’t properly plant his back leg to throw.  After gaining 129 yards on their first two possessions, the offense gained just 74 yards for the rest of the game against Seattle’s vaunted defense.  As a result, all Washington’s defense could do is to merely try to hang onto its lead for dear life, which they tried to do through the first three-and-a-half quarters before the Seahawks broke through with the go-ahead touchdown.

The guillotine would finally drop on the ensuing drive.  Griffin reached to try to pick up a bad shotgun snap from Will Montgomery, and his right knee finally gave out, turning inwards as if he were trying to do the Stanky Legg, and he crumbled to the ground.  FedExField fell silent as the future of the franchise flashed before everyone’s eyes.  Seattle would put the game away with a field goal.  The diagnosis?  Torn ACL and LCL.  (Coincidentally, it’s the same knee that he had suffered a torn ACL in at Baylor in 2009.)  For the next several months after the game, the offseason drama of who was at fault for leaving Griffin on the field while visibly injured, as well as the speculation of whether he would be ready for the following season, raged on, and RG3’s career would never be the same in Washington again.

Case 2: New York Rangers 3, Washington 2 (2012 NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 5)

Yep, you guessed it, another hockey example.  Just comes to illustrate the state of the Capitals and DC sports in general when Caps games comprise of many of these in the countdown.

With the series tied 2-2, this was a critical game in the series, and a Caps’ victory would have given them much-needed confidence to close out the series on home ice.

Washington took the lead early on in the 3rd period and despite being outshot the whole game, it looked like they were about to hold on and steal one on the road as the game clock inched towards 0:00 and the Rangers emptied their net.  With 28.9 seconds left, Joel Ward, who had scored the series-winning goal in overtime against Boston the previous round (and, in turn, turned Twitter into Stormfront for a short while), whacks Carl Hagelin in the face with his stick right after the faceoff and takes a four-minute double-minor penalty after Hagelin was bleeding from the hit.  The 21.3 seconds from victory now seem like an eternity with Washington trying to stave off a 6-on-4 situation.  But the Rangers win the draw, keep the puck in their offensive zone, shoot it on net, and Mike Richards gets the rebound and scores the game-tying goal with 6.6 secconds left.  Wow.

And because the goal was scored within the first two minutes of the double-minor, Ward still had to serve the last two minutes in the ensuing overtime session.  The Rangers get another offensive zone faceoff with the man advantage, and Marc Staal shoots it from the right point.  The puck deflects off the stick of Brooks Laich and past Holtby for the game-winner.

LEVEL 3: THE STOMACH PUNCH

Now we’ve moved into rarefied territory, any roller-coaster game that ends with (A) an opponent making a pivotal (sometimes improbable) play or (B) one of your guys failing in the clutch. … Usually ends with fans filing out after the game in stunned disbelief, if they can even move at all. … Always haunting, sometimes scarring. … There are degrees to The Stomach Punch Game, depending on the situation. … For instance, it’s hard to top Cleveland’s Earnest Byner fumbling against Denver when he was about two yards and 0.2 seconds away from sending the Browns to the Super Bowl.

Either of these two games by themselves could have qualified for this, but in my mind, they’ll forever be linked together for no other reason than the simultaneity of the games and for what was at stake for each team and for the DC sports fanbase as a whole.

Case 1: Atlanta 82, Washington 81 (2015 NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 5)

Case 2: New York Rangers 2, Washington 1 (2015 NHL Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 7)

2015 was one of the most successful years for DC pro sports as a whole, with three teams qualifying for the playoffs.  While the Wizards and Capitals have popped into the playoffs here and there in the last few decades, it’s been rare for both teams to reach the playoffs in the same season.  The spring of 2015 was the second time since 1988 that both teams reached the playoffs in the same season and the first since 2008.  The great thing about multiple teams in the playoffs?  If one team fails, you can hitch your wagon to the other team.  So one could imagine how euphoric (or relieved, for some) DC sports fans were feeling when both teams advanced to the second round for the first time ever after the Wizards swept Toronto and the Caps took out the Islanders in seven.

On the flip side, there’s also the chance of a double dose of disappointment, and if you’ve made it this far into this series, you probably know where I’m going with this.

May 13, 2015.  Both the Wizards and Capitals have critical playoff games ahead.  For the Caps, it’s a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers.  They led the series 3-1 before dropping Games 5 and 6 (sound familiar?).  Each game in the series had been decided by one goal, so to say that this series has been evenly matched is an understatement.  The Wizards are in Atlanta for a pivotal Game 5 against the Hawks.  With the series tied at 2-2, John Wall will return after a three-game absence due to a fracture in his left hand.  His presence would be needed.

7:45 p.m.: The puck drops at MSG on NBCSN.

8:03: Underway in Atlanta as the Wizards get the opening tip.  Game is on TNT.

8:09: Goal, Capitals.  Alex Ovechkin receives a pass in the slot from the left boards and beat Henrik Lundqvist glove-side with 7:10 to go in the 1st. 1-0 Washington.

8:18: The Caps lose possession of the puck on their power play late in the first, and Rick Nash is in the clear on a breakaway chance, but Holtby stands tall and makes the save.

8:23: First period ends in Manhattan.  Caps still lead 1-0 but will start the 2nd shorthanded.

8:27: The first quarter ends in Atlanta with the Hawks leading 23-19.

8:45: After the Caps fans’ whipping boy Mike Green gets exposed again on a penalty, Derick Brassard’s shot hits the post.  The Capitals would kill the penalty.

8:51: Within a minute of leaving the penalty box, Green goes brain dead again and commits another penalty, but this time, the Rangers make them pay.  They keep the puck in Washington’s zone, and J.T. Miller sends a perfect diagonal pass to Kevin Hayes at the left post to tap in and tie the game at 1-1.  Because of course Green would have a big hand in the opposing team’s playoff success.

8:53: Back in Atlanta, the Wizards take the lead on a Wall jumper, as his return to the game had jumpstarted the comeback effort.

9:00: Paul Pierce drains a three with 29 seconds left in the half to cap a 19-4 scoring run and stretch the lead to 47-39.  The Hawks would close the half with a bucket to cut the lead to six.

9:17: The horn sounds at the Garden and after a fruitless Capitals power play (and appeals from Caps fans for another penalty), the score is still tied at 1-1.

9:22: With the second half afoot in Atlanta, Nene hits a jumper to give the Wiz a 10-point lead, their largest thus far.

9:42: The Hawks battle all the way back and take a 61-58 lead with a 10-0 run with the Wiz missing eight consecutive shots.  The third quarter would end with the score 63-62 Atlanta.

9:44: Evgeny Kuznetsov nearly puts the Caps ahead but his backhand shot misses the net after beating Henrik Lundqvist.  Golden opportunity missed.

9:54: Bradley Beal gives the Wizards the lead again with the first points of the fourth quarter.

9:55: Brooks Orpik of the Capitals just crushes Dan Boyle with a big but clean hit (with Rangers fans disagreeing, obviously).  Boyle had to leave the game.

10:04: Beal would score again to give Washington a nine-point lead with 6:15 left, capping a 13-1 run in this strange game of dueling scoring runs and lack of scoring altogether.  The defense did its job as well, forcing four Atlanta turnovers and 10 straight missed shots.

10:16: You guessed it.  Another lead change in Atlanta amid concurrent scoring runs/droughts, despite both teams shooting poorly.  Al Horford hits a long two-pointer and the Hawks are ahead 74-73.  They’d go on a 14-0 scoring run with the Wiz missing seven in a row to make it 78-73.

10:17: Oh boy.  Game 7 of the Caps’ series will have to be decided in overtime after a period of few chances.  This confirms that this will be the second 7-game series in NHL history where every game is decided by one goal (the other? Caps-Bruins in 2012).  Nothing more exciting in sports than an overtime Game 7 in hockey, unless you’re a fan of one of the teams in the game, in which case there’s nothing more anxiety-inducing.  Even more so for the DC fans, as now they’re on the edge of their seats on two fronts.

10:27: Tie game in Atlanta! Wizards battle back to tie it with Marcin Gortat’s jump hook with 51.3 left.

10:32: After a defensive stop, Paul Pierce, who had been clutch his entire career (including when he “called ‘game'” on a game-winning shot at the buzzer in Game 3), has it poked away from him by Kyle Korver, leading to a 2-on-1 fastbreak with Horford and DeMarre Carroll playing hot potato with the ball until they get the basket, and Carroll finishes it to give the Hawks the lead with 14.9 left.

Meanwhile, the puck drops at MSG for the start of overtime.

10:35: …but Pierce would atone for the turnover on the next possession by draining a corner 3.  Wiz up 81-80.  8.3 on the clock.

10:36: Back in New York…Caps get the first real chance in overtime with a shot from Jay Beagle brushed aside by Lundqvist.

10:37: Quickly back to Atlanta.  On the ensuing Hawks possession, Dennis Schröder drives down the lane for the game-winning layup, but Wall swats it off the glass.  Nene looks like he’s in prime position to get the rebound, but he gets outmuscled by Horford who grabs the rebound and sticks in the dagger, giving the Hawks an 82-81 lead with 1.9 to go and the Wizards out of timeouts.  Wall’s halfcourt heave misses as time expires.  Gutted.

Up in New York at the same time, Holtby makes a save on Hagelin from the left circle.

10:47: the Caps ice the puck, and luckily it happens after the 10 minute mark of the overtime period, so the guys on the ice get a bit of a rest.

10:50: Rangers take the faceoff.  Dan Girardi’s shot saved.  Rebound to Derek Stepan.  Left circle.  Goal.  Game, set, season.  The fifth blown 3-1 series lead in Capitals history, the most of any team in the NHL.

Two gut-wrenching defeats in 13 minutes.  Now I know that Simmons used the term “Stomach Punch” to describe such a game, but this just feels like you’ve been kicked in the nuts with a steel-toe boot, and while you’re bent over belatedly protecting your manhood, that person wearing the boot kicks you in the shins and you just collapse to the ground in the fetal position.

LEVEL 2: THE GOOSE/MAVERICK TAILSPIN

Cruising happily through the baseball regular season, a potential playoff team suddenly and inexplicably goes into a tailspin, can’t bounce out of it and ends up crashing for the season. In “Top Gun,” the entire scene lasted for 30 seconds and we immediately moved to a couple of scenes in which Tom Cruise tried to make himself cry on camera but couldn’t quite pull it off. In sports, the Goose/Maverick Tailspin could last for two weeks, four weeks, maybe even two months, but as long as it’s happening, you feel like your entire world is collapsing. It’s like an ongoing Stomach Punch Game. And when it finally ends, you spend the rest of your life reliving it every time a TV network shows a montage of the worst collapses in sports history. Other than that, it’s no big deal.

Case: Washington Nationals, July 31-September 2015

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The Nationals and the Mets were battling atop the National League East all season, and they had traded places atop the division seven times heading into August.  For the Nationals, Bryce Harper took the next step in his ascension to stardom, posting NL-highs in home runs (42) and on-base-plus-slugging (1.109), en route to winning the NL MVP award.

Big-money signing Max Scherzer had an impressive first season with the team.  Some of his best pitching came in June, when he followed up a one-hitter (with the only hit coming in the 7th inning) with his first career no-hitter (in which he was one out away from a perfect game but wound up hitting the 27th batter).

Although Drew Storen converted 29 of 31 save opportunities and had a 1.73 ERA, Washington made a splash at the trade deadline, acquiring All-Star closer and one-time World Series champion Jonathan Papelbon to become the new closer, while Storen would be demoted to the 8th inning setup role.  Papelbon only agreed to be traded on the condition that he would continue to close games, so Storen was moved, despite his regular season success that year.  It was speculated that the acquisition was made for the playoffs in mind, as Storen struggled as the closer on two occasions at that stage already.  After the Nats traded their former setup man Tyler Clippard away before the season, they wanted a reliable arm to hold the lead for their closer.

Washington also weathered numerous injuries to Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, and Stephen Strasburg, and as Zimmerman, Werth, and Rendon returned to the lineup, the Nats were expected to keep control of the division, or at the very least, stay in the hunt with the just-as-impressive New York Mets.

July 31, 2015.  Washington, leading the NL East by three games, travels to Queens to take on the Mets, who made some big moves before the trade deadline to help their offense, which at the time had been struggling, despite their elite pitching staff.  The Mets took the first game of the series 2-1 in 12 innings on a walk-off homer from Wilmer Flores.  The Nats led the second game of the series 2-1 heading into the bottom of the 7th inning, but Matt Williams decides to leave righty pitcher Joe Ross in the game to face Lucas Duda, a left-handed hitter who had already homered off him earlier in the game.  Lo and behold, Duda goes yard again and ties the score.  His turn would come around in the bottom of the 8th inning and, facing lefty Matt Thornton, delivers a double to deep left field to give the Mets a 3-2 lead that they would hold onto to win.

The Mets would complete the sweep on the back of a 5-run third inning against Jordan Zimmermann and pull even with the Nats atop the NL East.  The Nats came back home for a seven-game homestand to face Arizona and Colorado, two teams which at the time were sub-.500, and they went 3-4.  Two of those games against the Rockies involved Storen giving up the deciding hits.  The first was a grand slam from Carlos Gonzalez, and the second was a two-run single from DJ LeMahieu that broke a 4-4 tie in the 8th.  This was the beginning of a mini-slump for Storen, and it would be fair to wonder if his demotion due to the Papelbon trade hurt his confidence.  The Nats had slipped to 1.5 games behind the Mets in the process.

Washington would go on a 10-game west coast road trip, and dropped two out of three against the Los Angeles Dodgers, getting shut out by Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.  Things did not improve for the Nationals, suffering a four-game sweep to San Francisco, but they did rebound by winning two out of three in Colorado.  But now, the deficit was four games.  Suddenly, the playoff contenders had fallen to .500, and would fall below that mark after a loss when they got back home.

September came around, and the Nationals had a chance to cut into the Mets’ lead, which had shrunk to 4 from as many as 6.5 games.  The teams were due to face off in a three-game series at Nationals Park, which the Mets swept due in large part to late-inning bullpen struggles.  The bullpen faltered egregiously in the second game, as the Nats lost a 7-1 lead in the 7th inning when the Mets rallied for six runs, all with two out in the inning.  Suddenly, Blake Treinen, Felipe Rivero, and Storen couldn’t throw strikes, and the strikes they did throw were punished, including a three-run double from Yoenis Cespedes that contributed to the comeback.  Kirk Nieuwenhuis delivered the deathblow in the 8th inning when he homered against Papelbon.

Late-inning struggles struck again in the series finale, as homers from Kelly Johnson and Cespedes turned the game in New York’s favor.  Another sweep.  Seven games back.

Frustrations had started to boil in the Washington clubhouse.  Storen’s season came to a premature end after breaking his thumb in anger.  The Nationals would go 7-6 in the ensuing games, with a sweep against Baltimore at the end of that 13-game stretch.  The Mets’ division lead had only grown to 7.5 games, but time had all but run out for the Nats to gain ground on the frontrunners, and they were too far out of the Wild Card hunt to be a factor in that race.

On September 26, it was official.  The Mets mathematically clinched the NL East.  But just one day later, when you thought it couldn’t have gotten any worse…

And somehow, Williams, who claimed to have been unaware of the Papelbon-Harper fight, allowed Papelbon to return to the mound the next inning.  At that point, it was clear that Williams had lost the clubhouse.  Cue the debates at the time about who was right and who was wrong in what wound up being the most infamous image of the 2015 team.

Williams would be fired at the end of the season.  Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post summed up the Nationals’ collapse in greater detail in Part 3 of his series “Destiny Denied: The rise and fall of the 2015 Nationals.”  Storen would be traded to Toronto in the offseason, and you can say his downfall all started at the end of…

LEVEL 1: “THAT GAME”

Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. … One of a kind. … Given the circumstances and the history involved here, maybe the most catastrophic sports loss of our lifetime.  The only game that actually combined The Guillotine and The Stomach Punch. No small feat. Let’s just hope we never travel down that road again.

While this one isn’t nearly as massive on scale as the ’86 World Series, this one may have been the most heartbreaking in recent memory for DC sports fans both for what it could have been, and how it all unfolded.

Case: St. Louis 9, Washington 7 (2012 NLDS Game 5)

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For a city whose true passion has been NFL football, it is somewhat strange that the most devastating loss since 1992 involved its newest major pro sports team.

It has only been 11 years since the Washington Nationals played its first game in RFK Stadium since relocating from Montreal and filling a baseball void that spanned 33 years in DC.  After years of futility resulting in multiple high draft picks, the Nats became big-time contenders quickly, and expectations rose rapidly.  It all started to come together in the 2012 season when they won the NL East for the first time and had the best record in baseball.

But at first, the Nats struggled against the defending World Series champion Cardinals in the NLDS, falling behind 2 games to 1 and were one game away from elimination, but Jayson Werth gave the Nats new life in the series when he turned around a Lance Lynn fastball and sent it flying into the St. Louis bullpen for a walk-off, game-winning, season-saving home run, as described by Charlie Slowes in a radio call immortalized in the introductory montage for the team’s radio broadcasts.

And then Game 5 came around, and Washington jumped out to a 6-0 lead after three innings.  Of course, the Cardinals would not go quietly.  After all, it was just the previous year when they overcame a 10.5 game deficit in the NL Wild Card standings (in what just so happened to be the last year that each league only had one Wild Card berth) to get into the playoffs on the final day of the season.  That year, they made it all the way to the World Series where they later survived being down to their last strike twice in Game 6 to tie the score, and they would win on David Freese’s walk-off home run (with Joe Buck channeling his late father on the play-by-play), forcing a Game 7, which they would also win.  Would Game 5 be déjà vu for the Cardinals?

Gio Gonzalez labored through five innings and had given up three runs, and four other relievers trudged through the next three, having given up two runs in total.  But all that mattered was that Drew Storen would have a chance to close out the series in the 9th inning with a 7-5 lead.  Storen, who had been the closer the previous year, had reclaimed the role after recovering from elbow surgery that caused him to miss the first half of the season.

Carlos Beltran led off the inning with a double.  Matt Holliday grounded out, and Allen Craig struck out swinging.  Storen then had Yadier Molina, the potential tying run, down to his last strike with a 2-2 count.  Storen failed to get Molina to chase a breaking pitch in the dirt, and he missed high on a fastball with the next pitch, walking Molina.  Freese, the hero of the previous year’s World Series, came to the plate, and like Molina, he suddenly found himself and his team one strike away from elimination with a 1-2 count.  On the next pitch, Storen nearly strikes him out with a pitch similar to the one he tried to get Molina to chase, but Freese checked his swing just in time to stay in the at-bat.  Freese also drew a walk after two pitches out of the zone to load the bases.

Daniel Descalso wasted no time with his at-bat, swinging on the first pitch and hitting a sharp ground ball to Ian Desmond, who dove to try to make a play on it, but it bounced off him and into shallow center field, allowing two runs to score and tying the game at 7-7.  After Descalso stole second, Pete Kozma followed with a go-ahead two-run single to give the Cardinals a 9-7 lead which they would hold onto in the bottom of the 9th to complete an improbable comeback and stun many of the 45,966 fans at Nationals Park that night.

There seems to be a feeling that Washington willingly underachieved that season, considering the controversial decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg as the Nationals closed in on the division title. Before the season, the organization decided that Strasburg, who underwent Tommy John surgery August 2010, would have his innings limited all season, regardless of how well the team was doing.  Uncertainty over Strasburg’s postseason status continued to loom over the organization all season and even into the playoffs, where an arm like his could have helped.  Sure, his replacement Ross Detwiler pitched well in his only playoff start, but who is to say that Strasburg on the postseason roster wouldn’t have trickled down through the rest of the rotation and into the bullpen, allowing Davey Johnson more flexibility in close and late game situations?  Considering how difficult it is to win the World Series even with what looks like a team that will compete for playoff spots for years to come (just ask the Atlanta Braves of the ’90s), the idea of unfulfilled promise with regards to the 2012 team will linger in the minds of DC sports fans for years, especially if the Nats fail to win it all with this core.

A 6-0 lead after three innings.

One strike away.  Twice.

You can’t get much more agonizing than that.

Such encapsulates the incredulousness and paranoia of getting too attached to successful teams that Washington, DC sports fans have come to adopt.  Even if these moments aren’t nationally known by a nickname beginning with the word “The,” or aren’t associated with a stereotypically working-class populace, they still leave die-hard sports fans here yearning for postseason success that almost every city its size may have already experienced in the last 24 years.

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The Levels of Losing, DC Sports Edition (Part 3 of 4)

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.

Let’s continue.

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.

parcells 77-0

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!


The Levels of Losing, DC Sports Edition (Part 2 of 4)

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.

Let’s continue.

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.

Case: San Francisco 2, Washington 1 (18 innings) (2014 NLDS Game 2)

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.)

Case 2: Philadelphia 59, Washington 28 (2010 NFL season, Week 10)

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.


The Levels of Losing, DC Sports Edition (Part 1 of 4)

Another year.  Another superb Washington Capitals regular season ending in playoff disappointment.  Another year of wondering whether the Capitals will get over the conference semifinal hump.  Another year of fans left asking questions starting with “what if.”

“What if the puck bounced this way instead of that way?”

“What if the Caps didn’t take that penalty?”

“What if professional sports teams in the DC area are cursed?”

That last question seems to loom larger and larger as we become farther and farther removed from 1992, the year in which a major professional sports team from the DC area last won a championship.  Since then, the franchises in the four major professional sports leagues here have endured varying degrees of mediocrity, from historical ineptitude, to irrelevance, to unfulfilled promise, to utter heartbreak.

The championship droughts of professional sports teams in places like Cleveland and Buffalo have been well-documented in American sports lore.  Countless articles, sports talk radio rants, TV news stories, and even feature-length documentaries have been made about them.  That the Browns’ 1964 NFL championship is Cleveland’s most recent major sports title is common knowledge, as was the relocation of the Browns to Baltimore (or more technically, a suspension of the franchise) after the 1995 NFL season.  That the Bills lost four consecutive Super Bowls and that the Sabres were victims of a missed crease violation on Brett Hull’s Stanley Cup-winning goal has been woven into the fabric of all stories recounting historically tortured sports cities.  Sports fans in these two cities have had to endure the most painful defeats of any city in the country.

While not nearly on the same level as what Cleveland and Buffalo have had to endure, the Washington, DC area sports franchises collectively hold a dubious drought of their own.  1998 was the last time that a team had made it to the championship round of any of the four major sports, which is the longest current drought of any city with at least three major sports teams.  In fact, that was also the last time a team here has even gone as far as the conference championship/LCS round, a point in which every sports city with at least three teams has since passed.

In 2002, Bill Simmons, then writing for ESPN, devised a list of 13 “levels of losing,” used to measure various levels of anguish and devastation sports teams’ losses can bring to a fanbase, from the benign “happy to be there” kind all the way to the downright tragic (in a sports sense, of course) that gets replayed in all-time sports montages for the rest of time. Simmons revised the list to 16 levels in 2007.

Having begun to follow professional sports at around 1996 and 1997 and having growing up in the DC area, I’ve remembered more than enough big losses from teams in this area, and while many who are older than me could probably remember further back in time, I’m sticking to anything that occurred since 1992.  I will also not include collegiate sports here, as the DC area consists of two (three, eventually?) different states, and the transient nature of this region does not really allow for any one school’s sports teams to unite the city.  Thus, the University of Maryland’s infamous “Gone in 60 Seconds” game, or even the Final Four matchup with Duke that same year (or others from Maryland or Georgetown or any other local university) will not appear here.  While I appreciate what DC United has done, I would still hesitate to consider Major League Soccer a major professional sports league in this country for the sake of this piece, despite the league’s name.

With that, let’s get started.

LEVEL 16: THE PRINCETON PRINCIPLE

When a Cinderella team hangs tough against a heavy favorite, but the favorite somehow prevails in the end (like Princeton almost toppling Georgetown in the ’89 NCAAs). … This one stings because you had low expectations, but those gritty underdogs raised your hopes. … Also works for boxing, especially in situations like Balboa-Creed I (“He doesn’t know it’s a damn show! He thinks it’s a damn fight!”). … The moment that always sucks you in: in college hoops, when they show shots of the bench scrubs leaping up and down and hugging each other during the “These guys won’t go away!” portion of the game, before the collapse at the end.

I’ve decided to add two examples here due to some similarities between both cases, as they were both against the same opponent in the same venue, with the team in question taking similar paths to the playoffs (and although one of those teams was not as much of an underdog in the particular game, they had a more dramatic path to the playoffs, and as such, I’ll begin with that one).

Case 1: Seattle 35, Washington 14 (2007-08 NFC Wild Card Round)

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2007 may have been the most resilient team that Joe Gibbs has coached in his second time around in DC. It seemed like a miracle that this team even got to the playoffs after starting the season 5-7 and having to overcome a number of injuries to key starters, including at quarterback, two positions on the offensive line, linebacker, and cornerback. And all of that doesn’t even include the unspeakably tragic death of Sean Taylor late in the season. After the loss to Buffalo, Washington reeled off four straight wins against potential playoff contenders to get the sixth and final seed in the playoffs, all with Todd Collins–a quarterback who until that year hadn’t thrown a pass in a regular season game in three years and hadn’t started a game in 10 years–playing efficiently down the stretch.

While they didn’t start off particularly well offensively, the Redskins’ defense kept the game within reach entering the fourth quarter, trailing 13-0 in Qwest Field, one of the most difficult stadiums for away teams to play in. An 84-yard drive capped by an Antwaan Randle-El touchdown pass made it 13-7, and after a LaRon Landry interception on the Seahawks’ ensuing drive, Collins hit Santana Moss for a go-ahead touchdown to put the ‘Skins up 14-13. Momentum had shifted so far to Washington that they wound up getting the ball back on the ensuing kickoff after Seattle had misplayed the ball thanks to a tricky wind. Even with the favorable field position, they didn’t get any points from it. Shaun Suisham hooked a makeable 30-yard field goal to the left.

Despite the setback, Washington would get another interception from Landry, but Seattle made a defensive stop and scored a touchdown and two-point conversion on the next drive to lead it 21-14. Collins’ good fortune ran out eventually after a pair of pick-sixes–his first interceptions thrown all season, mind you–as Seattle would cruise to victory.  This turned out to be Gibbs’ final NFL game, as he would walk away from the final year of his contract that offseason. Despite how it ended, this 2007 team had an awful lot to be proud of, given the difficult circumstances they played through.

Case 2: Seattle 20, Washington 10 (2005-06 NFC Divisional Round)

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After dropping an overtime game at home against San Diego, Washington stood at 5-6 and were in serious danger of missing the playoffs for the second straight year in Gibbs’ return to the team.  But with Mark Brunell finding the fountain of youth, Clinton Portis and Santana Moss having breakout years, and the defense beginning to come into its own, the team won five consecutive must-win games and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999.

After knocking off Tampa Bay in the previous round, Washington had a tough task ahead going into Seattle for the Divisional round.  The Seahawks had the best record in the NFC at 13-3 and were favorites to get to the Super Bowl out of the NFC.  Seattle was an 8.5 point favorite, but they lost a fumble in the red zone early on, and they later lost league MVP Shaun Alexander to a concussion, and the playing field began to level.

In the 4th quarter, Seattle’s lead was cut to 17-10, and the ‘Skins recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but they could not take advantage, stalling in the Seattle red zone and settling for a 36-yard field goal from John Hall…that he missed.  The Seahawks effectively put the game away with a long drive ending in a field goal, but how many people expected Brunell to turn back the clock on his career and have the season he had?  While Washington returned to the playoffs two years later, this was their most successful team in the Gibbs II era.

LEVEL 15: THE ACHILLES HEEL

This defeat transcends the actual game, because it revealed something larger about your team, a fatal flaw exposed for everyone to see. … Flare guns are fired, red flags are raised, doubt seeps into your team. … Usually the beginning of the end. (You don’t fully comprehend this until you’re reflecting back on it.)

Case: Detroit 37, Washington 25 (2010 NFL season, Week 8)

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Before the 2010 season, Philadelphia raised eyebrows around the league when they decided to trade Donovan McNabb, arguably their best quarterback in franchise history, within the division to Washington months after their coach Andy Reid insisted that McNabb would return to the team.  As analysts initially panned the move from the Eagles’ standpoint, fans in this area were once again excited by their team making a splash move in the offseason with the hopes of a competitive team, months after hiring two-time Super Bowl champion coach Mike Shanahan.

McNabb had a pedestrian start to the 2010 season with his touchdown numbers falling and interceptions rising from previous years (this due in large part to the change in scenery), but the ‘Skins were 4-3 and well in the mix at the top of the NFC East.  They were leading Detroit 25-20 in the 4th quarter and had the ball with less than five minutes remaining, but on 2nd and 10, McNabb tried to force the ball through coverage to his intended receiver, but his pass was intercepted, and the Lions drove down the field to score a touchdown and take a 28-25 lead.  McNabb was unable to move the ball on the next drive, but the defense held Detroit to just three points with 1:45 left, so there was still time for a comeback.

Only it wouldn’t be McNabb trying to lead the comeback.

Shanahan would replace McNabb with Rex Grossman (yes, the Rex Grossman who gravy-trained his way to a Super Bowl appearance with the Bears while inhibiting whatever shred of an offense they ever had), citing Grossman’s apparent knowledge of the two-minute offense and McNabb’s “cardiovascular conditioning” not being up to par.  Fittingly, on the very first snap Grossman takes, he gets sacked, fumbles the football, and Ndamukong Suh recovers it and takes it the rest of the way for a touchdown to seal a Lions victory.

Despite signing an incentive-laden contract that only guaranteed $3.5 million after that game, McNabb appeared to be nearing the end of his career.  The ‘Skins languished thereafter, going 2-6 the rest of the way to finish 6-10.  McNabb was demoted to third string with three games left in the season.  And this was the first of several instances of Shanahan struggling to explain himself after making questionable decisions regarding his starting quarterbacks during his tenure in Washington.

LEVEL 14: THE ALPHA DOG

It might have been a devastating loss, but at least you could take solace that a superior player made the difference in the end. … Unfortunately, he wasn’t playing for your team. … You feel more helpless here than anything. … For further reference, see any of MJ’s games in the NBA Finals against Utah (’97 and ’98).

Case: Washington vs. Chicago (1997 NBA Playoffs, first round)

As this was my first full year following the NBA, I was vaguely aware of this playoff series. For the Bulls, this series was supposed to be a formality on the road to repeating as champions under Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and the rest of the team.  While they didn’t quite match their NBA-record-setting (at the time) 72 wins, they did tie for the second-best record in NBA history at 69-13.  And there was no way that they would let themselves become the second 1-seed to go down to the 8-seed.  (Just imagine the Gheorghe Muresan equivalent of Dikembe Mutombo lying on the floor, holding the ball in the air.)

Despite the sweep, Washington was extremely competitive in this series and even held a lead in the third quarter of Game 2. But the Bullets went cold from the field that quarter and lost the lead, and in the fourth quarter, Michael Jordan went full MJ, scoring 20 of the team’s 23 points to cap off a 55-point night.

Game 3 came before a raucous crowd at the Capital Centre (or whatever the name of the airline that bought the naming rights to it was), and the teams were neck-and-neck throughout the game. Rod Strickland led the team with 24 points and Tracy Murray caught fire off the bench and added 20 of his own. Washington even pulled ahead by nine for a time late in the game. But once again, this wasn’t just any 1-seed the Bullets were playing. This was a team with three Hall of Famers (not including a 43-year-old Robert Parish who hardly played in his final NBA season), Jordan did his usual thing, and Scottie Pippen turned it on with 16 of his 20 points coming in the second half, including beating Calbert Cheaney along the baseline and delivering a series-clinching two-handed dunk over Harvey Grant with just seconds left.

With budding stars Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, this was thought to be just the beginning for a team on the rise.  That, however, never materialized, as the newly-rebranded Wizards missed the playoffs the next year, Webber was traded (which still makes zero sense), and Howard was given that massive contract.  No wonder this team underachieved for so long between then and the Gilbert Arenas years.

LEVEL 13: THE RABBIT’S FOOT

Now we’re starting to get into “Outright Painful” territory. … This applies to those frustrating games and/or series in which every single break seemingly goes against your team. … Unbelievably frustrating. … You know that sinking, “Oh, God, I’ve been here before” feeling when something unfortunate happens, when your guard immediately goes shooting up? … Yeah, I’m wincing just writing about it.

Case: Washington vs. New York Rangers (2013 NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals)

In one of the many series that have gone 7 games in the Alex Ovechkin era, the Capitals have had the supposed benefit of home ice advantage, but they’ve lost more Game 7s at home than won.  Washington won the first two games of the series, but at that point, most of their good fortune had run out.  They couldn’t avoid taking the silliest of penalties, especially in the games at the Garden (part of it was their own doing and part of it could be the product of very few, if any, calls going their way), and the Rangers had out-powerplayed them 28 to 16 throughout the series.  The Caps also outshot them 226-205. But Henrik Lundqvist, as you would expect from him during the postseason, had his Superman cape on in goal and posted consecutive shutouts when the Blueshirts were facing elimination.

Game 6 was especially frustrating.  Despite the Rangers getting the only five power plays in the game, the Caps fought all five of them off, but despite a few big chances to score, it was a Derick Brassard shot that glanced off the body of Steve Oleksy and completely caught Braden Holtby off guard that stood as the only goal in the game.

Washington also had many of the early chances in Game 7, but again, Lundqvist was a man on a mission, and when he starts making saves with his skate blade, you know you’re in trouble.  It also didn’t help that Holtby was letting in soft goals from fourth-liners like Arron Asham and then giving up two goals a little more than two minutes apart in the 2nd period.  At that point, the Rangers wrested full control of the game, and Caps fans found the team in a familiar position: congratulating their opponents for moving on (while probably muttering a few choice words unsuitable for this blog under their breaths).

Stay tuned for Part 2, to be released tomorrow.


Déjà vu feeling for Caps fans?

It’s that time of year again.  The Stanley Cup playoffs are upon us.

With the hard-hitting, the late-game drama and unpredictability relative to its counterparts in other leagues, some say the Stanley Cup playoffs is the most exciting playoff tournament in North America.

But to Washington Capitals fans, the “unpredictability” of the playoffs is the very aspect they dread.

Since their return to the playoffs in 2008 in Bruce Boudreau’s first season as coach, the Capitals and their fans have known nothing but playoff disappointment.  Despite earning seeds of 3, 2, and 1 in 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively, the Caps have only advanced from the first round once, in 2009.  That series, just like the other three, went seven games.

And it was that series where the Caps faced the New York Rangers, who will once again oppose the Capitals as the 8-seed  in the playoff series starting tonight.

For many Caps fans, this was the matchup that they feared the most.  The makeup of this Rangers team resembles everything that has led to playoff failure year after year.  Stout defensive play.  World-class goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist.  Takes few penalties.

These were the factors that have done the Capitals in last year against the Montreal Canadiens last year, facing a goalie in Jaroslav Halak who, after being pulled from Game 3, suddenly caught fire.  He held the high-powered offense of the Caps to just one goal per game in the last three games of the series, all of which were won by Montreal.

And during a season in which the Caps had seemingly struggled offensively for a good chunk of the year, a matchup with a team like the Rangers would certainly have Caps fans worried, especially after the Rangers won 6 out of a possible 8 points from the Capitals in the regular season, including thrashings of 7-0 and 6-0.

After all, this city hasn’t but dealt with constant disappointment in recent years, from the fallout between Redskins’ quarterback Donovan McNabb and Mike Shanahan, to the end of the Gilbert Arenas era for the Wizards, to the perennial cellar-dwelling of the Nationals, only compounded by the loss of Stephen Strasburg for most, if not all, of the 2011 season.  It has become Pavlovian for D.C. sports fans to expect the worst, even when it comes to the city’s best major pro sports team today.

But despite the struggles in scoring, the eight-game losing streak (which included the 7-0 beating), career-low in points from Alex Ovechkin, and calls from fans for Boudreau’s job during the rough times, the Caps were convinced that this season would be different, and for the better come playoff time.  The team had focused on strengthening the blue line depth, as well as an overall emphasis on defense.  Out went Tomas Fleischmann and David Steckel.  In came Scott Hannan and Dennis Wideman as reinforcements to injury-riddled Mike Green and Tom Poti, and the emergence of brightly-shining youngsters Karl Alzner and John Carlson.  The addition of Jason Arnott provided the team with more depth at the center position, as well as valuable playoff experience.  As these moves were made during the season, it was clear that this team was definitely being built to win in the playoffs, regardless of the bumps in the road along the way.

According to GM George McPhee, focusing on better defensive play had been in the works since last season’s early playoff exit.  Says McPhee:

“Playing better defensively was something that we had addressed at the end of last season. We continued to talk about it, and wondered if it was time to make that shift but we had been successful playing the way we were playing. But when we got into that losing streak, we thought then that it was time to try this.  It’s a dangerous thing to do, because players get confused when you change systems. Sometimes they’ll lose faith in the coaching staff. It doesn’t work very often, but our coaching staff did a terrific job of making it work. We’re a better team today as a result. I’m glad they pulled it off, because it’s making us a more formidable club.”

And this has certainly showed.  The team that had constantly finished in the bottom half of the league in goals allowed and penalty kill percent in the previous three years has finished 4th and 2nd in those respective categories.  By the end of the 7-0 defeat, the Caps had surrendered 91 goals in its first 32 games, nearly three goals per game.  In the 50 games afterward, they allowed just 101 goals, good for roughly two goals per game.

Yes, the Caps are facing Lundqvist again.  Yes, the Rangers have tended to be the Caps’ kryptonite in recent years.  No, the team isn’t scoring goals at the rate they had been in past years.

But after the trials and adversity the team faced, there is good reason for fans to feel more optimistic heading into this year’s playoffs.  Déjà vu?  Not likely this year.

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