Springtime was magical. Puck fans watched with rapt attention as the Capitals overcame a 3-game deficit to beat the Rangers, and we felt like we were living in charmed times. “Could this be the year the Caps actually do it?”, we would whisper to ourselves in quiet corners. The team never looked better than it did during those last four games against New York, and we wondered how far it could go.
We would gather at our friends’ houses, donned in red, and we would cheer the team from afar. Tickets were just too darn expensive, so we’d need to pick our game well. Not attending wasn’t an option. The team was too good to miss. Semyon Varlamov had risen from obscurity to become the Kerri Strug of goalies (that is, lithe and successful). The trifecta of Semin, Ovechkin, and Backstrom had turned D.C. into a veritable hero city. Mike Green and his ever-shrinking mohawk was weaponeering his defense. And a young team rallied around its senior Russian, Sergei Federov.
So when the Caps moved up two games over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference playoffs, we knew it was our time. We would secure tickets to the Caps Stanley Cup finals. But everything started to go pear-shaped, and we began to worry if such a series would arrive at all. The Pens snatched the next two games, and we were in a pickle. My friends and I advanced our schedule and procured tickets to the tentative game seven of the Pens-Caps series.
For a while, we wondered (half relieved) if those tickets might not be used at all. The Caps might seal the deal at Mellon Arena, and we’d have to wait to see them in the finals. Tiny anthropomorphic Cups named Stan began to dance in our dreams, but soon the boys began to slip. Malkin and Crosby no longer seemed immune to Semyon Varlamov’s goalie fu, and worse– the team began to drag on the ice. Even senior puck statesman Sergei Federov could no longer summon GWGs out of thin air. Washington had fought tooth and nail to get a game seven, and they only sealed the deal because David Steckel managed to find a lucky gap during OT of game six.
So we had a date with Verizon Center. And destiny. May 13th came upon us like a rabid badger laced up in dull ice skates– which means it was real tense. Leaving my capacious family estate (read: two-bedroom cape cod) in Frederick, I made my way to the Shady Grove Metro station. Covered I was– in red and anxiety alike.
The red line to Chinatown was redder than it has ever been. I tell you this, my friends: you will never experience shared fraternity like among the passengers aboard that train. Solemn nods and fist bumps occupied us during our pilgrimage.
Exiting onto F Street, I was greeted by a marching band beating out syncopated tunes of glory. One bulky gentleman-fan chose to brave the brisk temperatures of May and go shirtless– his chest smothered in red paint save for a hairy white “8″ on his back. My repulsion was matched by an equal measure of excitement. This was my first Caps game since the lockout and the early, salad days of Jaromir Jagr’s tenure. I’ve seen many Redskins games, but the fanatacism at Landover was always tempered by a smattering of self-effacement. Here in Chinatown I was among true believers, folks who were genuinely inspired by the happy few we were about to watch. On the street walked only a few Penguins sweaters, the bodies therein keeping a cautious distance from packs of wild Caps fans running wild in the street.
Our seats were less than ideal, somewhere in Verizon Center’s 400 section, but they were not quite as high as our spirits. If the Capitals’ play could only match our verve, we’d be champions for sure. Little did we know that the fates and furies had been conspiring to collectively defecate on our victory parade.
Twenty minutes in and the Capitals seemed to lost somewhere in the locker room. Sidney Crosby, the purse-lipped diva of the Penguins, had netted the first mark of the night during a power play. Surely, we thought to ourselves, the Caps could come back in the second period. Where was Mike Green’s slapper from the blue line? Where was Alexander Ovechkin’s bull rush offense? Where was Brooks Laich’s Unbearable Laichness of Being? Surely, these offensive secrets were hiding somewhere in the second period. Right?
Reader, they were not. Inside the seemingly endless middle frame lived three more Penguin goals by three other players, as if they intended their goal summary to double as the team’s roster.
In those closing minutes of the second period, my friends and I breathlessly buttressed one another. “This is where epic comebacks are mounted. The story you tell your grandchildren on your deathbed, the one about The Great Eight and his unpunctuated double-hat trick to beat the Penguins– it starts here and now.” For a sixtieth of second, we almost believed it. The Caps offense might still have something for us.
And they did. It was this: the lamest goal ever.
That was the first time I saw Alexander Ovechkin score in person. The game summary says Alex was unassisted, but I clearly saw Marc-Andre Fleury PASS HIM THE PUCK. This was the man who brought us the superhuman athletics of The Goal, but now he brings such measly offerings– skating the puck into an empty net at the blistering speed of meh. But the suckers we were– we exploded into conniption fits like Japanese kids watching Pokemon. I’m sorry. I didn’t know any better. I was just relieved to see some sign of life from the undead Caps.
I cannot accurately relate to you the mood at the Phone Booth during the second intermission. I remember only fleeting feelings, confusion chief among them. Some fans adopted a familiar Washington defense mechanism (“the bums can’t play!”), and others were filled with bewilderment and sympathy. Everyone was sure of one thing: Something is wrong in the District of Columbia.
It would be another day or two before we knew the full story. Much of the team had the flu. Mike Green had a separated shoulder, which explained his erratic slapshot performance. Alexander Ovechkin was skating on a broken toe or somesuch pain. Jeff Schultz played with a broken rib. Semyon Varlamov, now pulled from the net, could not have been more mentally broken down if he were subjected to the Ludovico technique. The playoffs had deconstructed and destroyed the Capitals’ health. They were now playing hurt, running off fumes against the lubed-up hockey machine from Steeltown.
I don’t have the heart to detail for you the goings-on of the third period. I can tell you there was a double minor, another Crosby goal, and an arena full of despondent fans. Even TheHornGuy‘s emphatic fanfares could not bring back the magic.
But a curious thing happened in those final minutes of the Caps’ not-quite-Cinderella season: Applause. It started modestly– a few die-hards who wanted the bench to hear their commitment. Then it spread. By the final minute of play, Verizon Center erupted into standing ovation: an expression of gratitude and admiration for the season then ending. The Washington Capitals pushed themselves as far as they could go and found the brick wall at the worst possible time. It happens, but it doesn’t make them less heroic. The final buzzer was drowned out by a sea of redshirts congratulating their team. Final score: 6-2.
I have a confession to make. I’ve been to about two dozen Caps games since my teens, and I’ve never seen them win. Not once. Not during the storied spring of ’98, not at the 2000 home opener, not at game five of the ’01 series against the Penguins, and during Jagr’s sentence in Washington. You can blame the Capitals’ collapse in May on a lot of things, but we can all agree that some blame falls on my shoulders. For this, my fellow fans, I apologize.
But here we are, many months since May, facing off once again against the Pittsburgh Penguins. They who handed us our most humiliating defeat last year will likely try to do so again. But we are a team renewed. The 2010 Caps are made of concrete, a tightly knit unit that know how to face adversity. We all know that every path to the championship goes through Pittsburgh. Without the absolutes of injury and exhaustion facing our favorite team, tomorrow’s decision resides entirely with the question of Character. Who’s got it, and who does not?
Alex, Alex, Nicky, Mikey, little Michael, Brooksy, Brandon, Nasty, Davey, the two Tommies, Tyler, Shoane, Theo and the rest are likely snug in their hotel beds by now. Maybe little Stanley Cups are dancing in their heads. When they wake up Thursday morning, Coach Bruce would do well to remind them of the lessons of May 13th.
Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.