Thin Ice: Capitals find themselves in a familiar hole again

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“They’ll take both games in Pittsburgh.”

It was Sunday. When I spoke those words, they – AKA, the Washington Capitals – were fresh off the second of two losses on home ice. Worse, they’d come at the hands of their arch-nemesis: the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I didn’t have any particular inklings or insider knowledge. It just seemed like a reasonable expectation, at the time. After all, despite the lopsided-nature of the scores, the Caps had held their own and even dominated Pittsburgh in every category except the score-sheet.

Or, perhaps it was the last vestige of my fandom talking (more on that to follow), a small torch of bravado to light a dark room. Or, maybe I was channeling the notion that sports have a way of evening out, eventually.

Unless, that is, you’re the Caps.

This was before Game Four, “stick-gate” (a reference to a costly, own goal in the second period) and another vanishing act for Washington’s talented, top line.

Team captain, Alexander Ovechkin recorded just two shots on goal and was a non-factor. Number one center, Nicklas Backstrom played like a lost puppy; time after time, his careless passes were intercepted and turned the other way.

Opposing them was a Penguins team that was decidedly-banged up. Pittsburgh is minus their best defenseman for the post-season. They also played without their best player, Sidney Crosby, on Wednesday.

Nonetheless, both teams return to the Verizon Center, Saturday night, with Pittsburg poised to send their rivals packing early yet again.

That’s familiar music to Caps fans. They’re the 20th century Boston Red Sox and the 90’s Atlanta Braves all rolled into one neat package.

The Braves were the dominant, regular season team in the 1990s, winning eight division titles, that decade. However, that excellence resulted in just one World Series title (’95).

The Capitals are no strangers to regular season success. They went 55-19-8 this year – best in the league. But despite accumulating year after year of gaudy records, the wheels have always come off in the playoffs.

Washington entered the league in 1974 and has yet to lift a single Stanley Cup. Their lone, Finals appearance came in 1998, when they were swept aside like bread crumbs, by the juggernaut Detroit Red Wings.

The Red Sox (at least, your father’s Red Sox) can relate to the field of post-season demons. During their 85-year run of futility, they always found some creative way or another to bumble their way to defeat.

Of course, Boston eventually broke through in 2004. The Capitals have yet to experience such a magnificent revelation. And, their regular season dominance makes the whole thing that much more infuriating.

It’s created an odd paradox, where the Caps are both the overwhelming favorites and the underdogs. Fans have come to expect the worst, sphincters tightening at the first sign of trouble.

God help them if they give up an early goal in a game seven. The raucous, Verizon Center crowd will quickly go silent. Trust me; I’ve been in the building on such occasions.

It’s like watching your kid gag away the game-tying free throws in the closing minutes of their championship game. You want to sprint down the aisle and give them a hug. At the same time, you’re pissed because it’s Saturday night, and you could be an innumerable number of better places than watching this disaster unfold.

Eventually, you just get numb to it. I threw in the towel in 2010. The Caps, after compiling the best regular season record (sound familiar?) were stunned by the then-unknown Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadians.

Washington sports fans don’t have much to hang their hats on. At 31, I’m a bit too young to have really cherished those Redskins Super Bowls. The Orioles have been mostly-bad in my adult life. The Wizards have been mostly-irrelevant save for one season with Michael.

At a certain point, the constant losing affects the psyche. Something had to give. And, the way I see it, it’s less-infuriating to root for a consistently-bad product than one incapable of coming through in the clutch.

You have it or you don’t. Ovechkin and Backstrom are clearly not wired that way. Their even-keeled coach, Barry Trotz, has never won in the postseason, here or in Nashville. Worse, his teams have looked consistently unprepared to play 60 minutes of hockey.

Yes, they’ve out-shot the Penguins by large margins (if I have to hear another radio pundit recite that stat I’m going to fire a slapshot through the speaker). Unfortunately, goals – not shots – dictate the victor in hockey. Winning teams find a way to get the puck over that little, red line.

Ultimately, their best hopes seem to rest with the Nationals, who are a lost season away from usurping the Caps as the town’s best choke artists. To fully pass the mantle, however, the Caps will have to demonstrate they can at least win a few playoff rounds.

As we get set for the game five puck drop, those prospects seem dimmer than ever.

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