It’s not just that, of the Capitals’s 13 playoff games this spring, all but one has been won or lost by a single goal. What makes Saturday’s game especially excruciating for many Caps fans is having endured one of the most gut-wrenching defeats in Washington sports history just five nights ago.
So while much of the nation focuses on Washington for its usual political pulse and movements, many people who live here will watch — or follow but not watch, or watch while pretending not to watch — their hockey team.
The Capitals barely made the National Hockey League playoffs, but now they stand only one win away from knocking off the Eastern Conference’s top two seeds, including the defending NHL champion. If they win tonight, the Caps would advance to the conference finals, one step away from the Stanley Cup Finals, where they’ve been just once in their 38-year history.
This would, perhaps, erase the tag “choking dogs’’ that was pinned on them about 20 years ago by my former colleague Tony Kornheiser. (This week on his radio show, Kornheiser announced that “these Capitals” are no choking dogs.) It would, maybe, ease the memory of some preposterous Capitals disappointments, including a pair of four-overtime playoff defeats (to the New York Islanders in 1987 and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1996) and a playoff loss that featured a puck bouncing off the helmet of Mike Ridley onto an opponent’s stick before a goal.
Kornheiser gave his gracious absolution on Tuesday, the morning after the Capitals’ 3-2 overtime loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The Capitals led that game 2-1 with less than a minute to play. But after a penalty against Washington’s Joel Ward (the hero of an earlier playoff game), the Rangers tied the score with 7.6 seconds left and then, with Ward still in the penalty box, scored the game-winning goal a minute or so into overtime.
Ward probably doesn’t know this (athletes are more resilient than the fans who watch them), but his gaffe put Monday night’s game right there among D.C.’s most painful losses.
It may even compare to the infamous — certainly you remember — Thanksgiving 1974 Redskins-Cowboys game. That day Clint Longley, an unknown quarterback, replaced the injured Roger Staubach in the third quarter with the Redskins ahead, 16-3. He threw two touchdown passes, including a 50-yard game-winner to Drew Pearson with 28 seconds to play, to give Dallas a 24-23 victory.
“The triumph of the uncluttered mind,” grumbled Blaine Nye, Longley’s unimpressed teammate.
Nearly 40 years after the fact, Redskins safety Brig Owens, a Washington businessman, still remembers the play. “We had Pearson double-covered,” Owens said this week. “I had Pearson outside and Ken Stone had him inside. But he [Stone] bit.”
What advice would Owens offer to Ward? “You have to shrug those things off. You need a short memory. You can’t play scared.”
“Besides,” added Ray Schoenke, a Redskins offensive tackle that day, “we still made the playoffs that year. And the Capitals are alive.”
And those Caps fans who can’t bear to watch tonight? “Watching sports to many fans is an emotional investment,” said Michael J. Stutz, a Rockville clinical psychologist. “The word ‘fan’ comes from fanatic. If the team loses, you lose. When you don’t watch, it’s easy to avoid the pain.”
Personally, I’ll be driving back from Philadelphia Saturday night after seeing 6-year-old Jake Solomon’s T-Ball Stars battle the Satellites. I’ll be happily listening to SiriusXM Radio’s “Fifties.”
Okay, maybe occasionally, just occasionally, I will be switching the dial to the NHL channel to hear how the local hockey team might be faring against its blue-shirted friends in New York.
[Your turn: Are you watching the game? Share photos of your view, jerseys or memorobilia here.]