Last May, the Washington Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round for the second consecutive year. It was the ninth time in ten career tries that the Capitals have lost to the Penguins in the playoffs. The team’s bitter rival then went on to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
Being a fan of the team felt like a spear to the lil’ Toms. “Why do I keep doing this to myself?” one season-ticket holder asked me after the Game Seven loss to the Pens. I didn’t know how to respond because I was struggling with the same question myself.
Over the offseason, the Capitals chose to make an already cynical fan base even more cynical by standing pat and making no significant changes to the roster or coaching staff. The Caps lost depth pieces though free agency (Justin Williams), a salary dump (Marcus Johansson), and the expansion draft (Nate Schmidt). Those losses made a Presidents’ Trophy-winning team for two years in a row less special and dominant.
Fans responded with less hope and passion. According to the DC Sports Bog and reporting by the Sports Business Journal, the Caps local TV ratings were down eight percent year-to-year and lagged well behind Wizards ratings.
While RMNB traffic this season is up seven percent over last season, readers’ interaction and enthusiasm was down or static in several other metrics. A few readers have told me privately that they struggle having hope or don’t see what the point is in following the team closely until the playoffs. And even then, I hear this.
“They’re just going to lose in the second round again.”
The Caps’ losing-when-it-matters defines this franchise. Remember when that fan scribbled this message on the boards at the team’s practice facility last year?
I sympathize. I understand. I, in a lot of ways, feel the same things. But something in this very moment feels different.
Before the postseason began, Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan, a Stanley Cup champion himself, was asked what he thought the secret was to winning a championship.
“Last couple years, we put pressure on ourselves. It might have taken a little bit of the fun out of the game,” MacLellan said. “I think it’s important to have fun and enjoy this time of year. It’s not about the pressure of winning, it’s about the pressure of competing and playing your best at this time of year. This is what you play all year for: get in the playoffs, to have fun, and to win.”
The quote points to MacLellan wanting the players to have a shift in focus. MacLellan doesn’t want the Caps to be focused on winning a Cup or the team’s past history in the playoffs, as that’s out of their control. He wants them to focus individually on how they can be at their best during every game.
The team is echoing that sentiment.
“It’s just fun,” Alex Ovechkin said when asked about facing the Penguins again. “That’s why we work so hard all year to be in this position. Obviously you want to move first round, second round, third, and fourth. It’s hard. It’s a big challenge for us, especially against Pittsburgh. There’s always a lot of attention to this series, and it’s fun.”
Sure it was just the first round, but the Capitals already look like a different team. After losing their first two first-round games to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Capitals didn’t spaz out and let the pressure take them under. Instead they hunkered down, won four straight, and became the first team in NHL history to win a best-of-seven series after suffering overtime losses in Games One and Two at home.
Hockey can be a fickle sport. Despite having the best goalscorer (Alex Ovechkin) or the best goaltender (Braden Holtby), the Capitals have come up short in the past. Despite being the best team in the regular season, the Capitals have found ways to lose against lower seeded teams.
In the NHL postseason, superstars can take over, but unlike in other sports, that may not be enough. Top forwards or defensemen don’t play much more than a third of the game. A team can dominate in possession, but lose because the other team scores more on its high danger chances and their goaltender makes one more big save than the other guy. Teams that are worse beat teams that are better all the time. The margin between winning and losing is razor thin. Playoff games can be lost on a single bad bounce.
But that’s why I have hope. And it’s why you should too. Let’s say the Capitals and Penguins match each other goal for goal during the series. It’s the little things that will make a difference: a Jay Beagle offensive zone faceoff in overtime or loud cheering after a huge penalty kill.
I believe in numbers, but I also believe that your participation and your attitude does impact the players on the team. I’ve been to enough games at Capital One Arena to know that the crowd can will players to score. Your ferocity gives the players energy.
It even happened during Game Two against the Blue Jackets. Capitals PA announcer Wes Johnson led a raucous Unleash The Fury with fans.
You brought it big time last night Caps Fans. The house was rockin’ & FURY preceded the TJ Oshie goal that tied it up. We may be down, but we are NOT out. It’s time to make the Jackets pay. #Believe #CapsJackets pic.twitter.com/rLxWTBhs61
— Wes Johnson (@WesJohnsonVoice) April 16, 2018
Shortly thereafter, TJ Oshie scored.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) April 16, 2018
I named my child Ethan Wesley Oland after Wes. Part of the reason why I did so was because Wes is a close friend of mine and one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. But the other reason why is that he has the qualities that I want Ethan to have someday.
Wes is creative. He is authentic. He is passionate. He is strong. He wears his heart on his sleeve. He never lets negativity hold himself back from being who he wants to be. We need to embody him.
For the last year, this fan base has held itself back. We’re afraid to get hurt again. We’re too cynical. We’ve paid less attention because we don’t want to go through this pain again. It’s like any great love of our life that just hasn’t loved us back the same way – we shield our heart to avoid that same excruciating pain. We’ve been through this song and dance before and we want to think we know how it ends.
But we don’t.
Your passion matters. This… I don’t understand why, but it matters.
— Owen Johnson (@OwenJohnsonsTwr) April 26, 2018
You screaming as loud as you can at Capital One Arena matters. You caring matters. You selling your tickets to Caps fans instead of Penguins fans matters. Your positive vibes matter. You starting a LETS GO CAPS chant matters. We cannot be tense, negative, and quiet anymore. We need to have fun. Perhaps the team will feed off that.
A team is a loser until that magic moment when it’s not. When a group of players, coaches, and fans combine together to make it all go away. See the Red Sox. See the Cubs. See the Cavs.
This season may come crashing down again, but then again, maybe it won’t.
This year, let’s do something different. Let’s not get frustrated. Let’s not feel sorry for ourselves. Let’s respond to adversity by cheering even louder than ever before. Let’s be who we once were. Let’s believe in this team again.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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