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Photo: Mark Raker
Photo: Mark Raker

Parade Marks Perfect End to Caps’ Stanley Cup Dream

It was the late, great Tom Petty who sang “waiting is the hardest part,” and whether it was the full 44 years of a founding fan, Alexander Ovechkin’s 13-year quest for the Stanley Cup or you jumped on the Capitals’ bandwagon sometime this spring, the wait is over: your Washington Capitals are Stanley Cup champions, and the party is (still) on.

Thursday night, 17,000-plus crowded into Capitol One Arena, and many thousands more flooded the streets of Chinatown, to rock the red in support of their team, even though Game 5 was played in the gleaming desert lights of Las Vegas, some 2,400 miles away.

DC has long been maligned as a second-class sports town, and the grains of truth in the stereotypes make the barbs sting all the more. The District’s affluence and transient population makes for casual fanbases that are more concerned with stadium amenities than the team itself; the Wizards are underachieving and dysfunctional; the football team’s glory days are long past, relegated to a boondoggle of a stadium and saddled with a megalomaniac owner unable to stop himself from repeatedly breaking his favorite toy; the Nationals (until recently the Caps’ baseball counterparts) are highly talented but unable to perform in the clutch.

Ever since Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals vaulted the home team past the back-to-back champion Penguins, media personalities and outlets of all stripes had come out of the woodwork to mock the mania that has swept the DMV (like here, here and here). And no one has made more hay trading in this kind of mid-tier snark than ESPN commentator Mike Wilbon, who called DC a “minor league sports town” for getting excited about finally besting their rivals in the playoffs. The same Mike Wilbon who sported his Chicago Cubs gear when the baseball team advanced to the World Series in 2016. Wilbon and his ilk would have you believe there is a “right way” to enjoy a playoff run, and this kind of orthodoxy is almost exclusively the province of the bitter. Thousands of people don’t swarm downtown or into an arena (especially not 70,000 of them in the span of minutes) to watch on jumbotrons out of mere curiosity; they do it to be a part of something special, something real. Call it bandwagoning if you will, but if it is, remember there’s no zealot like a convert.

Last Tuesday night (and in the days and weeks before, frankly), the Capitals changed all that, coming from behind to beat the Vegas Golden Knights and capture their first Stanley Cup. From the jubilation of “exorcising the demons” against Pittsburgh, to battling back from the brink of elimination to knock off the Lightning, and capture the Prince of Wales Trophy, to stealing the spotlight in Vegas, the Caps’ wild ride is one that neither they, nor anyone else in the DMV, will ever forget.

The details of Game 5 seem almost inconsequential in retrospect. The Cup isn’t won in a single game, after all. The image that will stand the test of time is Alexander Ovechkin finally claiming his hard-earned prize (and the Conn Smythe to boot). The Great 8 played like a man possessed throughout the postseason, and watching every heaving exhale of relief, primal scream of exhilaration and laser-intense stare was high drama surpassing any show on TV (also, more sports should follow hockey’s example of presenting the trophy to the team’s captain, rather than the owner).

It seems ridiculous to say, given he is two years older than me, but as #8 held that silver cup aloft, I felt as proud of him as if he were my son. My large Russian son. Every grey hair, broken tooth and past playoff disappointment melted away as he hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup in triumph, but he wouldn’t be in a position to do so without the entirety of the Caps roster (and let’s not forget coach Barry Trotz and his hot laps) pulling on the rope as well.

There was Kuznetsov elevating his game and giving Caps fans a glimpse of the team’s future leader. Devante Smith-Pelly’s big goals and physical play (the WWE Championship belt at the parade was a nice touch, too). Tom Wilson’s galvanizing fight in Game 7 against Tampa Bay. Braden Holtby’s stellar saves (Game 2 anyone?) and steadying presence. Lars “The Tiger” Eller’s game-winning goal to clinch the Cup. And of course, there was T.J. Oshie. Watching Oshie embrace his father, Tim, stricken with Alzheimer’s, was a moment almost too personal for television, one that would bring even a stone man to tears. But the sad moments wouldn’t last (as evidenced by Oshie ghost-chugging when his name was called at the victory parade),  for as great as it would have been for the Caps to sew up the Cup at home, the team found themselves in the best possible place to party (and presumably listen to “We Are the Champions” on repeat) until the sun comes up.

The Stanley Cup is no stranger to multi-day celebrations, but since the scoreboard at T-Mobile Arena hit all zeroes on Thursday night, Ovechkin and his merry men have embarked on an epic bender that would make Keith Richards proud, and they’re bringing the District along for the ride. The Stanley Cup is unique among the major sports leagues’ trophies in that it’s, you know, a cup, and while past winners have utilized this added functionality to make Jell-O molds or the world’s fanciest cereal bowl, our intrepid heroes have made it the centerpiece of their Beltway Bacchanal. Drinking champagne straight from the Cup, Cup Stands and all manner of euphoric revelry have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that Russian Machine Never Breaks.

While the players might be in rough shape from their days-long celebration, the hockey gods gifted the capital with a picture perfect day for the parade, and Caps fans did not disappoint. Some pretended to be busy with work before the parade, others didn’t bother with the pretense, staking out spots along the parade route as early as 3 a.m. Someone ask Wilbon if this is how minor league sports towns celebrate (by the way, there was a lone arrest during the Capitals victory celebration on Thursday night).

From my vantage point high above Penn Quarter, I could see Ovechkin shoulder pressing the Cup high above his head, which he has seemingly been doing (when not drinking from it) nonstop since Thursday night. I could even make out the usually stoic Holtby waving his arms like a madman as the parade turned from Constitution Ave. onto 7th St. On the stage on the Mall, whether it was Holtby, Oshie, Coach Trotz or the incomparable Great 8, each lauded the Caps faithful for their support along the way. And one more rendition of “We Are the Champions” left no doubt that this is truly The People’s Cup.

On and off the ice, the Stanley Cup Final is about coming together and enjoying the ride. And across the DMV, we needed a ride to enjoy right now. The Capitals’ Stanley Cup run has been the best kind of distraction from the competing circuses at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue and all the sideshows that so frequently accompany them. Our town takes more than its fair share of flack as a result, absorbing the frustrations of an increasingly divided country. It’s about time we had something to call our own, and it’s all down to an extraordinary team, and the fans who followed them every step of the way. And so, to steal a phrase from commentator Jeremy Roenick, welcome to the District of Champions. Drink it in.

Photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images via Washington Capitals
Photo: Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images via Washington Capitals

It’s Really Happening: The Capitals are Playing for the Cup

No one said it was going to be easy, but the Washington Capitals fought their way back from the brink of elimination, and sit just four wins away from hockey’s ultimate prize. They’ll just have to erase the Vegas Golden Knights’ 1-0 series lead to do so.

After pummeling Tampa Bay on their home ice in the series’ first two tilts, the Lightning returned the favor in front of the fans at Capitol One Arena. Sloppy play up and down the roster made scoring chances hard to come by, where Steven Stamkos and the Bolts’ white-hot powerplay made the home team pay for its defensive errors, going 3/7 in Games 3 and 4.

Last Saturday’s Game 5 loss was the Caps’ third in a row, putting them behind 3-2 in the series, and leaving fans who ventured out to watch drinking to forget. As was the case in Games 3 and 4, the Caps were sloppy with the puck, giving up far too many quality chances to the potent Lightning offense, and looking hesitant and unsure defensively

After vanquishing the hated Penguins and jumping out to a 2-0 lead, hope had evaporated like morning fog on the Potomac, and fans across the DMV were bracing themselves for that all too familiar playoff disappointment.

But a series’ momentum can shift like the winds, and a veritable hurricane roared through Capital One Arena last Monday night for Game 6. Aside from a few early chances for the Lightning, the Caps were absolutely dominant. Stout defense stymied the usually virtuosic Lightning attack, and any shots that reached netminder Braden Holtby were stopped with aplomb. T.J. Oshie opened the scoring on a powerplay with 4:48 remaining in the 2nd period, working to get himself free in the slot before ripping the puck past Andrei Vasilevskiy after a perfect pass from Nicklas Bäckström.  Turns out that’s all they would need.

As I watched from my perch in Row Q of Section 422, my back against the cool concrete high above Chinatown, craning my neck to see around various divisional championship banners, it was hard to shake the feeling that I was witnessing something special. There’s probably no such thing as a perfect game, but it’s hard to imagine a better 60 minutes of hockey than what the Caps played Monday night. To my mind, the physical game was the difference. Alexander Ovechkin and Devante Smith Pelly (who added the Caps second goal, and been a major contributor throughout the playoffs) were absolute wrecking balls, and even from the nosebleeds, I could see Lightning skaters looking over their shoulder to see if a human freight train was bearing down on them. Oshie tallied an empty-netter in the game’s waning seconds to seal the victory, and the party was on. The electric crowd spilled out of Capital One Arena and from the steps of the Portrait Gallery to the Greene Turtle a sea of red chanted “We want the Cup!” and “Let’s go Caps!”

Even after such a convincing showing in Game 6, anything can happen in a Game 7, but the Caps were simply not to be denied. In a script fit for Hollywood, Alex Ovechkin drew first blood just over a minute in, blasting an absolute howitzer past Vasilevskiy, and set a tone that refused to abate for the remaining 59 minutes.

Watching the squad respond to their captain’s early example was nothing short of inspiring. Devante Smith-Pelly and T.J. Oshie each sacrificed their bodies to block shots that would put down a bull moose (both would briefly leave the game before returning).  Tom Wilson galvanized his teammates with a fight near the end of the first period, thrashing Braydon Coburn (who has an inch and 25lbs on Wilson, by the way) after the two had been jawing at one another over the glass in the penalty box. Andre Burakovsky scored his first two goals of the playoffs just under 8 minutes apart, and Nicklas Bäckström put the icing on the cake with an empty netter. In sum, it was a complete team effort that allowed Washington to throttle the Lightning in the final two games of the series.

After a dozen years of disappointment, it was once again Ovechkin’s turn to be magnanimous in victory, leading his team in congratulating the Lightning on a hard-fought series in one of the greatest traditions in sports. Ever the free spirit, the red captain gave commentator Pierre McGuire a wolfish smirk before collecting the “cursed” Prince of Wales Trophy, not only touching it, but picking it up and posing for pictures with it as well. After exorcising the demons of Pittsburgh, superstition doesn’t seem to mean much to this team.

As Memorial Day weekend wound down, the final chapter of the Caps season began to unfold. Just off the Las Vegas Strip, T-Mobile Arena, hockey’s unlikeliest (and possibly loudest) venue gave fans a show both on and off the ice. Prior to puck drop, Lil Jon, Michael Buffer, and Criss Angel hyped up the crowd, while a glossy (if overwrought) pregame show proved that Sin City is going to do hockey its own way. Considering that most of DC’s celebrities are politicians with AARP cards, I wouldn’t expect to see any on-ice sword fights when the series comes to Capital One Arena.

While the pregame festivities were certainly a spectacle, the game itself was nothing short of bonkers. In true Vegas fashion, Game 1 treated fans to the on-ice equivalent of a heavyweight title bout, with both fighters trading haymakers and fans waiting to see who was still standing when the dust settled. Like a heavyweight fight, it wasn’t always pretty to watch, emotion and nerves had both sides amped up and sloppy, but the fireworks made up for the lack of precision. The NHL’s two remaining teams battled back and forth, trading goals, with neither team able to pull away. The 6-4 final score belies the fact that the Caps were one well-timed stick check away from Lars Eller tying the game at 5 apiece with 40 seconds to play before Tomas Nosek potted an empty netter to seal the Golden Knights’ first ever Stanley Cups Finals victory.

There are no moral victories in the Stanley Cup Finals, but it’s important to remember the circumstances surrounding Game 1. The Golden Knights were hosting their first ever Stanley Cup final game, and the team entered the tilt with a 12-3 record throughout the playoffs with a just a single home loss. They’ll have to clean up their act defensively, but the Caps have proved they can handle the iciest conditions in the desert, and the series will soon be heading back to the friendly confines of Capital One Arena. Two more dissimilar cities may not exist, and plotlines will abound both on and off the ice. If you missed the memo last time, there’s time to jump on the bandwagon. Buckle up.

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.