I’m just gonna write, and we’ll see what comes out.
Back-of-napkin math tells me that I’ve written about six-hundred game recaps here on RMNB. Recaps average a little over 800 words each, so that’s about half a million words I’ve written just about Capitals hockey games. It’s hard not to think of all that work as a preamble to the moment we’re in right now. Like it was all some long road, and this is the destination. Does it feel like that for you?
That feeling makes sense. The championship grants meaning and context to what, for some fans, was decades of adversity. If you were a Caps diehard in the inaugural 1974 season, you savored just eight wins among eighty games. Washington was the worst expansion team in pro sports, and they remained miserable for nearly a decade. The character of this franchise was established way back then, back in March of 75, when Ace Bailey celebrated the team’s first road win by passing around a garbage can as if it were the Cup.
These are the hard-luck Caps, the lovable losers, the most pathetic team in a pathetic town filled with pathetic teams. We watched them lose the Easter Epic, we watched them lose Scott Stevens, then we watched them watching Scott Stevens win the Cup for the Devils. We watched them get embarrassed by the Penguins on a near-yearly basis. We watched them make the Final only to have Tikkanen miss the net as the team got swept by the Wings. We watched them pay their former tormenter, Jaromir Jagr, unspeakable sums to do not much at all. We watched them sell everything that wasn’t bolted down in a fire sale.
And then we met Ovi. He was special. He loved terrible house music and shots vodka, he terrorized DC and Northern Virginia for the first few years, and on the ice he was transcendental.
Except he wasn’t enough. The team had to build around him, and all the while we were told he was the wrong player to build around. To some he was selfish Eurotrash who backchecked like his controller got disconnected. He didn’t play the Right Way – even though Ovi’s way reminded me of some all-time great Canadian power forwards of yore.
So when the Caps faltered in the Boudreau era, we were told it was a failure of character and of construction. They weren’t built for the playoffs. They didn’t understand what it would take to go deep into the postseason. They collapsed in big games and lacked the confidence to take the next step.
As if confidence is a prerequisite for success instead of a byproduct of success.
I don’t know at what point I realized that so many opinion peddlers were full of it. It was probably close to when Bruce Boudreau got fired, back when we were told that all those thrilling 82-game campaigns, seasons from which the Caps claimed eight division titles and three Presidents’ Trophies in Ovechkin’s first 13 years, did not matter. When I finally acknowledged that the blowhards didn’t deserve my attention, I felt liberated. I wonder what those pundits are saying now – just kidding; I sincerely do not.
I do wonder what will come of this team now that they are Champions. Barry Trotz’s time as head coach seems like it’ll go on. RFA Tom Wilson will certainly be extended. Playoff hero Devante Smith-Pelly could command a big payday, and the Caps possess his rights.
Jay Beagle, an eight-year veteran of the Caps, might have played his last game in the uniform here wore as he won that Championship. Younger players could fill his role while his salary cap space is spent on another free agent, John Carlson. The Caps would be wise to send Michal Kempny an offer, but their other deadline defense pickup, Jakub Jerabek, will likely be gone.
Those are sobering thoughts. I don’t want to think about players leaving. I just want to think about the 2017-18 Capitals, the Stanley Cup Champions, for as long as my mind will let me. What they’ve accomplished is not just long-awaited and profoundly cathartic, but also staggeringly unlikely.
When Ovechkin said that the Caps weren’t going to be suck this year, he was responding to questions at training camp about how much worse the 2017-18 team would be compared to the 2016-17. Whoever asked the question was right to ask it. The Caps lost a lot of talent: Schmidt, Johansson, Williams, Alzner, and Shattenkirk.
And, as a unit during the regular season, the Caps really weren’t nearly as good as they were in the prior season. They got stuck in their own zone and had trouble building a reliable attack. But with Ovechkin scoring seven goals in his first two games, it didn’t really matter. Even when the team bled high-danger chances, their goalies would bail them out or the offense would cancel it out with prolific scoring. The team flagged only a few times – first in November, when Barry Trotz’s job was maybe one bad night away from being lost – and then maybe again in the new year. But each time things got truly bleak, the Caps as a unit went on a streak. After dropping a 4-1 loss to the Flames before Thanksgiving, the team won 11 of their next 13 games. Trotz’s job was ostensibly safe and the Caps locked into the division lead.
Still, the team struggled with significant defensive problems as late as February, which coincided with Braden Holtby’s fall from grace, as it seemed every good chance against him found the back of the net. Then again, the team stepped up as a unit. Philipp Grubauer took over the net and played lights out, while Brian MacLellan got reinforcements on the blue line in Jakub Jerabek and Michal Kempny. With an easy schedule, the team coasted to the playoffs with a solid win-loss record but uncertain fortunes beyond it.
Those fortunes looked dim as the Caps dropped their first two games to the Blue Jackets, both crushing overtime losses. But the team actually played darn well in those games, and lost mostly on a few bad bounces, a flagging penalty kill, and a backup goalie who seemed a little over his head. So in came Braden Holtby, and then the Caps won four games in a row – a series win and a convincing statement that the team was capable of Actually Doing It.
Alex Ovechkin scored five goals in that first series. John Carlson recorded nine points. Holtby saved 93.2 percent of the shots he faced.
It was like a switch had been flipped. Those four wins revealed the 2017-18 Caps were a fearsome thing after all. They proceeded to drive play against Pittsburgh and Tampa as Evgeny Kuznetsov tallied obscene point totals. Braden Holtby, at the end of the worst season of his career, recorded two shutouts to close out Tampa. Depth players like Lars Eller and Devante Smith-Pelly stepped up in pivotal moments. And Ovechkin scored basically constantly.
Through those first three rounds, the Caps faced a coach that used to wreck them (John Tortorella), the team that has defeated them more than any other (Pittsburgh), and the coach they might have had (Jon Cooper) coaching the team picked by most to win the Cup (Tampa). The Caps beat them all through a combination of compelling team play and an unexpected burst of the same good luck that had dodged them for the last decade.
And then, at the end of this long, dark tunnel: the Vegas Golden Knights. An expansion team whose path to the Final was maybe more unlikely than the Caps’. Their manager is Washington’s ex, their star defender is a former unappreciated depth D-man in Washington, their goalie is the backstop who bounced the Caps more times than any other.
Washington dropped them in five games – the coup de grace featuring goals from all four lines, but whose chief architect was the same man who brought them there. Alex Ovechkin drew a penalty and scored on the power play, bringing his goal total equal to that of Sidney Crosby’s 2009 trip to the Cup, when the Canadian star was just 21 years old. Ovechkin, 32, had to toil for almost a decade after his rival first won the championship before he got his chance.
Time and anguish turned his brown hair gray, but at his core Ovi is the same sensitive, gregarious boy he was back when we first met him. He hugged his teammates in celebration and covered his face in dread when things got tense. He was all of us, and that’s why it’s been so vindicating to watch him raise the Cup. The narratives melted away – revealed as shams all along – and all that was left was universal recognition of Alex Ovechkin as Captain, MVP, and Champion.
Still, I refuse to think of all the pain that came before as a build-up to this. All those losses and humiliations had a purpose that is separate from what’s going on now. Those were the times that connected us to each other, foundational for us even if now never happened. The big difference, I guess, is now we’ve got one very special moment at the end of it all, and it lets us recast all the suck that came before in a happier light. I’m cool with that.
I’m not ready to think about how we’ll look back on this. There’s something trite I could say about how we’ll be talking about this year until the day we die, but I can’t frame it like that yet. Maybe that will come later. For now I just have to remind myself that this is real and that I have to appreciate it in the present tense. We have put so much love into this thing, and this thing finally loves us back. After years of giving us heartbreak and disappointment, all this thing asks of us now is awareness.
This happened. This is happening.
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