The Washington Capitals victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins last night to defeat them in the series and advance to the conference finals shouldn’t have epic significance — it was only a second-round series — but for Caps fans like me it does. I’ve been a Caps fan forever. I grew up in Northern Virginia and started following the team when it still hadn’t ever made the playoffs (it started as an expansion team in 1974-75 with a 8-67-5 record). I remember listening on my transistor radio the first time the Caps ever beat the Philadelphia Flyers — in December 1980. That 6-0 win, in Philadelphia no less, was like winning the Stanley Cup for us.
There’s a certain charm rooting for a futile team as a kid, but the Caps got better. It’s funny how franchises, even when the personnel is completely different, take on a certain identity. The identity of the Caps has been built, largely, on flame-outs in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter how good the team is, it will find a way to lose in the playoffs, often crushingly and especially against the Penguins. Our playoff record was 1-9 against them. The last two seasons we had the best regular-season record in the league — and lost two heart-breaking series to the Penguins.
It was after this I decided not to follow the Caps in the regular season at all this year. Why get vested in 82 regular-season games when it would all collapse in 14 games or less in the playoffs? I’d just tune in for the collapse. When I told Andy McCarthy my plan, he predicted I’d only last till December. I was sorely tempted at times, but checked no scores, watched no highlights, and didn’t look at the standings until toward the end of the season.
My fatalism began to kick in when the Caps dropped the first two games at home to the Columbus Blue Jackets in the playoffs, but I figured they might pull out that series — to lose to the Penguins, per usual. They did indeed win, and then dropped the first game at home to Pittsburgh (blowing a 2-0 lead). I told anyone who would listen that I’d rather get swept by the Pens than lose in seven games again. But we took a 3-2 series lead and had the chance to finish off the series in six games in Pittsburgh.
This had all the urgency of an elimination game for us because we didn’t want to go to a Game 7 again, and not show up, or lose on the unlucky bounce, or whatever. In overtime, Alex Ovechkin sprang Evgeny Kuzentsov on a breakaway, and he scored the winner. Yes, it was only a second-round series, but for once, we’d scored the big goal, we’d put the series away, we’d beaten the Penguins. Whatever else happens this post-season, this moment will live on as one the happiest in franchise history. Go Caps!