Expectation is a funny thing. It can drive some athletes to greatness and can make others cower in a corner. For the last couple of seasons, the Washington Capitals have played hockey under great expectations; from their fans, the media, their ownership and yes, from themselves.
So far, they have failed at their quest for hockey’s Holy Grail. But so do 29 other teams every season. Failure to win is not dishonorable if done after full commitment and effort.
Failure to live up to expectation is an entirely different thing. Expectation is neither rational or manageable. It is built from the psyche, from the heart. It is not quantifiable, and feeds off itself on most occasions.
The team that General Manager George McPhee has built to start the 2011-12 season is, arguably, the best he’s put together in his tenure. It is talented, experienced and deep, with a necessary influx youthful exuberance. There is every expectation that this team should vie for the top of the Eastern Conference once again. But that goal is “old hat.”
Fans in the market have grown tired of simply winning. They have grown tired of consistent excellence in the regular season only to be followed by a disappointing exit in the playoffs. They have grown tired of being “let down.”
Are the expectations for the Washington Capitals so high this season that they simply can’t be the best team in the league?
Apparently so. The frustration felt after last season’s embarrassing departure from the playoffs has seated so deeply that the Caps must dominate every game, every period, every shift, or in the minds of some they will be destined to come up as disappointing and empty as they did at the end of last season.This team is young, talented and motivated. They are coached by smart, dedicated, and passionate coaches. They are managed by a shrewd businessman that is conservative by nature but willing to address needs — within a calculated game plan. And they are owned by one of the most transparent, active and fan-oriented owners in all of sports.What’s not to like?
I wrote those words Nov. 15, 2010, a mere 18 games into last season, after a 6-4 win over Atlanta when the Capitals owned a 13-4-1, with some rather ugly and angry rhetoric on some message boards and comment spaces as a backdrop. Now, those are some tough expectations how have to live up to.
Maybe it’s easier for someone like me, who has been following this team since the second game in its history, to have a larger perspective. Not to sound like an old guy (which I am), but I remember a time not so long ago when this team was a doormat, or worse — an afterthought. I remember when the team was thisclose to leaving the area. I remember when, playing in the Stanley Cup finals, the building was 75 percent full of Red Wings fans.
Since the arrival of Alex Ovechkin, followed closely by Bruce Boudreau’s promotion, the Capitals have enjoyed a renaissance. Every year they are a contender. When Boudreau plays the style of hockey he’s most comfortable with, they are an exciting, fast-past, entertaining product on the ice. They have some of hockey’s best talent and most engaging personalities. The building is full of Caps fans, loud and is a difficult atmosphere for opponents, as it will no doubt Saturday night. This team, in a word, is fun.
What other team in the league holds it’s season ticket holder party in an amusement park?
This season will be no different. There will be challenges, to be sure. There will be injuries and losing streaks to overcome. There will be time for ultimate sacrifice once the playoffs start. All these things will happen regardless of the expectations you, I, the media, ownership or anyone else places on this team.
Should we hold the team and players accountable when they appear to lose focus or seem to not care enough? Sure. But if you think you care more than any of these players, coaches or managers do, you’d be sorely mistaken. You may show your passion wearing red, painting your face, dying your hair, getting tattoos or wearing silly costumes at Verizon Center, and that’s great. But these players show their passion with their scars, with their bloodied and bruised and yes, sometime broken bodies.
Remember this: Hockey is hard. If it were easy, everyone would win a Cup. Twenty-nine teams lose every year. Try to enjoy Saturday’s season opener without worrying about what might happen six months from now. Just try to enjoy the game.
Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals and the Washington Capitals. Previously, he wrote Nats News Network and Caps News Network.