Beginnings and endings are easy. I remember with perfect recollection the day I lost my first dog and the night I met the woman I love. Middles are tougher. I don’t know what I had for lunch the day the Caps shut out the Lightning or what the weather was when Nate Schmidt scored on the Blue Jackets.
So, our hockey team was felled once again by a familiar foe, marking one more failure in a very long line. It’s a painful punctuation on a season that I can still recall fondly – though that fondness is a bit more vague now. How can we reconcile another brutal ending with all the good that came before?
The Pittsburgh Penguins have ended the Capitals season in nine of the ten times they’ve met in the playoffs. That shame hangs over the franchise – even though some of the team’s players weren’t old enough to lace their skates when it began. Reputation doesn’t care. Andre Burakovsky wasn’t born when ‘choking dogs‘ was coined, but he still answered for it on breakdown day. Jose Theodore was the team’s number-one goalie when I first heard the “white Russian without the cup” joke, but the whole team – the whole city, really – is painted by that brush.
We’re to believe that the Capitals are infected by something both pernicious and patient. It goes asymptomatic for 82 games and then at least another six more, then it strikes acutely when game matters the most.
Asked Niskanen if there's a mental hurdle for this team. Didn't hesitate and said "yes."
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 12, 2017
Diagnostics point us to Game Seven, when the Capitals played with resignation as the Penguins took an early lead. Those final minutes before elimination saw hardly a shot against Marc-Andre Fleury, a miserable ending that frames a desperate picture: the Caps, restrained by fear of success, sabotaged themselves yet again.
But to accept that entirely would require us to ignore the thrilling effort the Caps put forth in Game Six against the Toronto Maple Leafs, in which Washington’s killer instinct gave a sense of inevitability to overtime and the victory that eventually came from the hands of Marcus Johansson.
That win matters less now. It was an earlier round for lower stakes against a lesser team. It has become the middle, and the middle doesn’t matter. The memories that stick in our heads are the beginnings and endings – the liminal minutes. Those minutes hurt.
That’s why, in retrospect, the loss to Pittsburgh now seems like a foregone conclusion. Of course the Caps would lose, because they are losers. It’s obvious, now that the ending sits so heavy in our minds. It frames our thoughts.
I should point out that it was an agonizingly tight series. The final goal count was 18 to 20. The loss required goalie Braden Holtby to play one of the worst seven-game stretches of his career (he’s spent 95 percent of his career above the .887 save percentage he put up against the Penguins). That’s not to say elimination was a fluke. It wasn’t. But I think it speaks to the viability of the team going forward and whatever dignity we grant them when we look backwards.
In January the Caps were the best team in the league by a mile – shutting out opponents in nearly half their games and running up the score. The regular season was not a coronation for the Capitals – it was just the deliberative, repeated articulation that this team is great. Obviously.
That they were great then does not dismiss their failure now, but I reject out of hand the notion that the Caps are endemically flawed somehow. That’s just our minds playing tricks on us. It’s the painful sting of elimination evoking the memory of dozens like it before. It’s recency bias and the reverse-halo effect teaming up to tell you that the Caps are broken.
Of course, there are adjustments to be made. Free agents like TJ Oshie and Karl Alzner will be too expensive to re-sign, but we knew that. Brooks Orpik’s contract had already been untenable before summer started. And Alex Ovechkin’s aging curve and defensive struggles were evident long before the final buzzer of Game Seven.
Whatever decisions get made in the front office, they should be informed by the whole of the season – not just how it ended.
And when we think about the 2016-17 Capitals, we should at least try to balance those liminal minutes with all the good that came before. These were good times.
Thanks to Pat Holden for reminding us of that Andy Bernard quote.
Headline photo: Amanda Bowen
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