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Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images courtesy of Washington Capitals
Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images courtesy of Washington Capitals

These Aren’t the Same Old Caps, and It’s Time to Pay Attention

The threat of a premature Capitals exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs is as predictable a spring ritual as tourists swarming the National Mall to snap selfies with the cherry blossoms. The Caps have made the playoffs eight times since drafting Alexander Ovechkin #1 overall in the 2004 NHL Draft, and have never advanced past the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The complete and staggering anthology of Caps disappointment and futility can be found here. Regular season dominance and President’s Trophies give way to first round collapses, second round no-shows, and more than one Game 7 heartbreaker. The offseason gives way to trades, splashes in free agency, and coaching changes that have annually failed to propel Ovechkin and the Caps to the Eastern Conference Finals – especially with Sidney Crosby and the hated Pittsburgh Penguins standing in the way.

The black and gold have given the hometown team fits over the years, (the Caps had been 0-3 in the Ovechkin era against Pittsburgh in the postseason) with the Pens knocking the Caps out in both 2016 and 2017 en route to hoisting Lord Stanley’s Cup. Along the way, Sid the Kid has become the face of the league, while Ovechkin, although undoubtedly a superstar, has repeatedly had to face questions about his heart, desire, and leadership skills. With each passing year, the shadows of past playoff disappointments grew longer for the Russian-born captain (as well as longtime Caps like Braden Holtby, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Jay Beagle), and while still relatively young at 32, he must know the window won’t stay open forever.

It seems insane to think the Great 8 has played over 1,000 games in his storied 13-year career in the nation’s capital, amassing a truly spectacular 607 goals and over 1,100 points in that span. When he eventually hangs up his skates, they will undoubtedly be placed in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, but without lifting that 34.5lb trophy (and then possibly drinking vodka out of it), the career of one of the NHL’s (and DC’s, for that matter) greatest athletes will seem incomplete, anticlimactic.

After vanquishing a scrappy Columbus Blue Jackets team in the first round, the stage was set for yet another showdown with the Penguins. After the heartbreak of the last two seasons, knocking off the two-time defending champs, with such a perceived mental edge, seemed like a Sisyphean task. Instead, a hard-fought series ended on the stick of Evgeny Kuznetsov (after a pass from Ovechkin) in overtime of Game 6, and Washington’s usually irrepressible captain exhaled like a man who had just heard the word “negative” on a medical diagnosis.

A less hungry (or even desperate) team might have wilted in the face of the scintillating Tampa Bay Lightning, the Eastern Conference’s top seed. After exorcising the demons of the second round, a letdown would have been anything but shocking. The first two games brought a continuation of what we saw against Pittsburgh: a team that is hungry, fearless, and determined, dominating the Bolts in the series’ first two outings in Florida.

On Tuesday night, Lightning dominated both in and outside of a packed Capital One Arena. The Caps supplied some offensive pressure, but too often were lackadaisical with the puck, and Braden Holtby was outperformed by his counterpart in Andrei Vasilevskiy, falling 4-2. Heading into Game 4 on Thursday, the Capitals have an honest to goodness series on their hands, and it’s time to start paying attention.

Sports serve as a respite from the pressures of a demanding city. It’s all too easy to become inured to DC’s talented sports teams flaming out in the postseason. At a time when so many stories are scary, maddening, or devastating, the Capitals’ quest for redemption and validation is so much more than distraction. We project ourselves onto our sports heroes to catch a glimpse of who we might be when placed on the highest stage. At their best, sports can remind us that darkness doesn’t last forever, that there’s no problem that can’t be overcome, that redemption is always possible.

I realize that seems like a huge amount of pressure to put on a franchise that already carries more baggage than a 747, but with just six wins to go, they’re more than halfway there. If they can do it, the Capitals will have climbed one of the tallest mountains of all. And if they do, you’ll wish you had been there to watch the ascent.

For more in the Capitals playoff season visit www.nhl.com/capitals.