August 8, 2020

OPINION: Caps face date with sad destiny in Game 7

Even before those in this area had heard of the men that go by the names Ovechkin, Backstrom and Trotz, the stigma was firmly in place.

A lost 2-0 series lead to Pittsburgh in 1996 led Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser to label the Washington Capitals as “choking dogs,” a notion that has become all-too-familiar for one of hockey’s most loyal fanbases. It seemed for a bit as if those fans would be rewarded with a monumental win this past Mother’s Day, only to leave Verizon Center shaking their heads and collectively asking themselves  — and each other — one thing.

How can this be happening again?

A year ago, the organization was in disarray. Changes in the front office and at the head coaching position spurred the Capitals back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a revamped blue line and new identity.

After securing a Game 7 win over the Islanders in the first round two weeks ago, head coach Barry Trotz spoke at length about the win signaling a changing of the guard in the beleaguered recent history of sports in the nation’s capital. In part, he said, “I was trying to get the word out that this is a new group. We always look at the past, and what I think we need to do in Washington, D.C. sports … we need to have positive attitudes. This is a new era for [us].”

His talk of a culture change made the rounds on local sports talk radio, and for a couple weeks, it seemed as if that idea rang true better than ever. But, with what looked late last week like an improbable seventh game now approaching, the team finds itself in a position that they know all too well.

Nine times in the last three decades, the Capitals have led a series by two games and lost it. Four of those times, Washington found a way to drop the final three games of a best-of-seven after once holding a 3-1 lead. Three of the six playoff series losses in the Rock the Red era (since 2008) have come via lost two-game series leads, and the fourth such instance in seven eliminations might go down as the worst of all if it indeed comes to pass.

Last Wednesday’s win over the Rangers put them a win away from going to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998 — none of the city’s four major teams have have gotten to the penultimate round of the postseason since then. Fans in DC are growing more desperate by the week, it seems, to even get close to a championship. With that anguish comes rampant cynicism, and I personally don’t blame those who have lost faith in this year’s Capitals in the slightest.

It’s a movie script that they can recite verbatim at this point — exciting wins lead to lofty hope, and that lofty hope has been rewarded constantly with meltdowns and bitter defeats. It looked like the script was flipped this year; close but no less hard-earned wins against the Presidents’ Trophy winners, and a brand of hockey that hasn’t been seen in the nation’s capital in quite some time. It’s been a clever balance of the Bruce Boudreau-style where it felt like you’d blink and miss a couple of Capitals goals, and defensively responsible Dale Hunter-type hockey.

Now, the team finds itself again at a crossroads. Seven years have passed since playoff hockey returned to Verizon Center. Six of those seven seasons (not including this one) featured a playoff berth, but all six runs ended with a defeat more painful than the one that preceded it.

The largest referendum yet on this team’s core will take place Wednesday night. Alex Ovechkin predicted after the game (autoplay warning) Sunday night that they’d leave Madison Square Garden with a win. If he’s correct, the naysayers’ claim that Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom, arguably the two most recognizable faces of the franchise, lack the heart to lead their team to a conference final will be proven wrong. Trotz will have backed up his assertion that a culture change is underway not only in the halls of Kettler Capitals Iceplex, but in the DMV as a whole. It will be the biggest series win since that 1998 season, and potentially the second-biggest in the franchise’s 40-year history.

But there’s a much better chance that they don’t. If they are unable to shed from their backs the gorilla of winning a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden, the doubters will be louder than ever before. If Ovechkin doesn’t show up on the biggest stage of his career, if his belief fails to hold steady as it did in 2011, the criticism (both fair and unfair) will be as emphatic as ever. If Backstrom doesn’t improve on his zero-goal, one-assist outing this series, the argument that he disappears every spring will hold significant weight.

Sure, the Rangers are playing a lot better and the on-ice product is more becoming of the team that had the best regular season record in the league. And for all I know, Washington could come out on Wednesday with guns blazing and dispatch the Rangers from the playoffs on their own ice.

But history says they won’t do that. The Capitals have never won a Game 7 after squandering a 3-1 series lead. If they finish their latest choke job in a series of many, their label as the loveable losers of hockey won’t go away until a Stanley Cup banner hangs alongside the “Eastern Conference Regular Season Champions” ones at Verizon Center.

About Eric Hobeck

Eric Hobeck is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Redskins and Capitals. Eric contributes to high school sports coverage at InsideNova.com. He served as sports editor of The Rotunda at Longwood University for two years, where he was also the men’s basketball beat writer. He hosted a campus radio show for three years and called basketball and baseball games for the station’s award-winning sports team. You can follow Eric on Twitter @eric_hobeck.

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