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Years from now, all anyone will remember is the Capitals – if they win one more game – won the Stanley Cup. They’ll remember Devante Smith-Pelly, Tom Wilson, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Alex Ovechkin among others. They’ll remember the city absolutely losing its mind, turning city streets in D.C. into Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
But they may not remember just what a crazy emotional roller coaster ride these playoffs have been. I’ve never seen a team be declared dead so often, then get up off the mat and charge the hill one more time.
I will admit that back in March I had a feeling the Caps would win the Stanley Cup (I also had the same feeling that the Nationals will be up and down all year and then win the World Series in the fall). Such thoughts are best kept to yourself, because if true you’ll curse the team, and if false, you’ve set yourself up for a deserved round of mocking.
My reasoning was simple: no one expected the Caps to win. After really good teams the last two years (and really big disappointments in the playoffs) this team was not supposed to be as good. They’d be lucky, some experts said, to even get to the second round and then lose like they always do. They weren’t even extending coach Barry Trotz’s contract because there was no confidence he’d get past the second round. Again.
It would be so Cap-ish, I thought, if this was the year they won it all.
So in round one, just to give my prediction the middle finger, they do the unthinkable. Lose game 1 in overtime. At home. Then follow it up by losing game 2. In overtime. At home. “Just get it over and lose the next two so we can be done with all this” was a popular sentiment. I was already planning my yearly trip to sporting goods stores to buy their Caps merchandise marked 50 percent off now that the season was over, only this would mark my earlier excursion ever.
But they won game 3 in double overtime and won 4 straight to win the series. I don’t care how big a fan you are, nobody saw that coming. Even with that flair for the dramatic, however, it wasn't like a booster shot of optimism for long-time observers. It just qualified the Caps, many thought, for their annual beating by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
After 4 games, it was tied 2-2. The Penguins weren’t their normal selves either, so there was hope. But decades of crushing playoff losses, usually in multiple overtimes, dictated each team would win at home and set up another nerve-testing Game 7 that the Caps would undoubtedly lose. Because that’s what they do.
The Caps won their home game. Then the Penguins kept their end of the deal by tying the game at the end of regulation. “Here it comes,” I thought, but instead Kuznetsov scored 5 minutes into the first overtime, and an old man was doing Kuzy’s bird dance throughout my house seconds later.
OK, maybe there’s a chance.
Then the fever really got hot. The Caps win game 1 against Tampa on the road. Then game 2 in Tampa. “We’re going to sweep these guys and make it to the finals,” everybody thought with the next two games at home at Cap One Arena.
So of course the Caps laid an egg in both games at home, lost three straight, and all was lost. “Time of death of Caps playoff hopes: 10:32 PM, Thursday, May 17,” I tweeted. I’d seen this movie too many times. They might win at home to tie the series, but they weren’t going to win a Game 7 on the road in Tampa to win the series. Game 7s are kryptonite to the Caps.
They showed me. They won two straight and arrived at the finals.
The rest has been a Washington sport nirvana. Las Vegas is an overachieving expansion team that has never really had to play from behind or be pressed that much the entire playoffs. The Caps could easily have swept them if a proper call for cross-checking on Ryan Reeves been made in Game 1. Other than that game 1 blip, it has been all Caps.
It’s been like the second half of the Redskins’ Super Bowl win over Denver when they exploded for 35 points in the second period and removed pretty much all doubt. They’ve dominated, jumped to a 3-1 lead, and take the same approach to Game 7s in a series as Dr. Stephen Falken learned in the old movie “War Games”: The only winning move is not to play.
So now we wait. When I was in college at Virginia Tech, my old friend Tim and I watched one afternoon on a 19-inch color television the Bullets beat the Sonics for an NBA title. The date was June 7, 1978. Over the years we have kidded each other that if we had known it would take another 40 or 50 years for a Washington team not named the Redskins to win a title, we might have paid more attention.
Well, we’re both paying attention now. Because if they clinch Thursday night, it will be on June 7, 2018. Forty years later to the day.
Like the noted philosopher Tom Petty once said, the waiting is the hardest part.