“The Capitals will make short work of Ottawa. We’ll see who comes out of the west, but frankly they match up pretty well with all those teams.”
That seemed to be the general consensus rippling throughout the DMV, Wednesday afternoon. The second Finals appearance seemed a given, and there was a guarded-optimism that this would be the year.
The problem: the Caps still had business to take care off – namely a game seven match-up against the Penguins. Washington had come back from the brink of elimination to tie the series. After a terrific showing in game six, the final game was being treated like a formality.
“Pittsburgh’s done. We really broke their spirit in game six; I don’t even think it’s going to be close tonight.”
Of course, these are the same fans who had all but thrown in the towel, after game five. I spoke to some fans who said they were probably not even going to watch game six. Twenty-four hours later, they’d not only reversed course, but were now insisting they’d known we’d be in this spot all along.
The problem: The Penguins are the defending Stanley Cup champions. Their resume includes three trips to the finals in the last decade, with two titles to show for it.
The Capitals have nothing to defend except their stellar, regular season dominance of recent years. Their resume includes no trips past the second round in the last ten seasons.
Thus, the arrogance displayed Wednesday – on the airwaves, on the streets, by water-coolers and in bars – was a bit shocking, but not surprising. Over the years, Washington’s fan-base has taken on the identity of its team.
They’re the ultimate front-runners.
That is, when things are going well, everything snowballs. And then, we talk. Caps fans are like the high school bully picking on an unsuspecting freshman. A little good karma falls into their laps and they think they invented Hinduism.
Like that bully, however, show a little backbone and they run crying home to mama. Pittsburgh came ready to swipe the proverbial football out from under the Capitals – ala Lucy to Charlie Brown. The first goal deflated the room. The second goal sucked the life out of it.
I half-expected to see red-jersey fans streaming for the exits. They knew, as I did, there wasn’t going to be any miracle comeback, even though more than ten minutes remained in the final frame.
The problem with front-runners: their psyches crumble when they get knocked down. The Capitals are not the kind of team that’s going to rally, the kind that creates good karma – the kind that wins playoff series.
It’s a direct reflection on the leadership of their captain, Alexander Ovechkin. A far cry from the Mark Messier’s of the world, number eight is an affable guy but a consistent no-show in big spots.
“Ovechkin has been playing well; he’s done everything but score.”
The congenial, “soccer mom” mentality of fans towards their star (in a town where quarterback opinions run the gauntlet of emotions series to series) is nothing short of mystifying. Every opinion fans have of the team is a microcosm of their feelings for their star.
To be fair, he entered the league and immediately became a star, in a town starved for them. He was never afforded growing pains or tough love because he’s always been a prolific player – at least in the regular season. By all accounts, he’s a nice guy and a solid-citizen. Yes, that counts for something.
However it appears “Ovie” is cursed with A-Rod DNA. Alex Rodriguez was the king of hitting the two-run homer when his team was already up by five. Likewise, I feel that, in a 5-1 game, Ovechkin is the guy that scores the fourth and fifth goals.
Despite that, he’s been treated with kid gloves, rebuked with all the fervor of an owner chastising a puppy dog who chewed through a pair of shoes. Coach Barry Trotz tried, demoting Ovechkin to the third line.
The message seemed to have little effect, with Ovechkin posting yet another scoreless outing in a series deciding game. I could recite the real numbers, but why pour salt into a knife wound? Everyone knows it; they just don’t want to be the one to say it.
And, it seems too ghastly-soon to be making such proclamations, with the wound being so fresh. It’s time for another summer of soul-searching.
It would be nice to think there’s a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow; that there’s a tonic for all this suffering. Ten years ago, that seemed inevitable. However, the arc of this particular rainbow has stretched longer than anyone thought possible.
Sometimes, you get there and there’s nothing. From 1961 to 2016, San Diego Chargers fans waited for a title, only to have the rug cruelly yanked out from beneath them. Sometimes there’s no gold, only a trap door.
Capitals fans can do little other than pray for a better outcome. The red-clad fans will be back, come September, for another go-around. By then, they’ll have deemed this season as anothe stepping stone. They’ll win a lot of games in the regular season; they’re too talented a group not to. The bravado will come back.
And, come springtime, Lucy will be waiting for them with that damn football.