Washington Capitals’ starring role in NHL’s passion playoffs

Mike Wise
Columnist May 9, 2013

A friend once landed the coveted assignment of hanging out with the Stanley Cup. It was after the New York Rangers had won in 1994, and for the next 24 hours he went where the Cup went: with Mark Messier to “Late Show with David Letterman,” to an NBA Finals game and finally to Messier’s Upper West Side ’hood, where the chalice was tucked in past 4 a.m. and the Rangers’ captain would let neighbors sip from it on the steps of his brownstone the next day.

This story is related today because sportswriters have fantasies, too.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

I always wanted to follow Stanley around for a night in Washington, where I’d no doubt end up at the Russia House or some swanky club in Georgetown with Ovi, Greenie, Brooksie and the boys, an interloper chronicling the most magical night of their careers.

But now it’s a day before Game 5 of yet another first-round series I thought they could end Friday night — all the newfound possibility of a deep postseason run put on hold after the Rangers scored eight goals in two games to knot their best-of-seven series at two games apiece — and I don’t know anymore when or even if “My Night Following Around the Cup” gets written.

Taught early in this business to root for good stories instead of teams, I nonetheless feel the Capitals are annually telling me what they keep telling their emotionally beaten-down fans: Don’t get your hopes too high because we’ll eventually dredge out your aortic valve with a backhoe.

Track every shot in the Capitals’ playoff games, see which ones they made count, and view by player, goals and ice strength.

For the past six Aprils and Mays, the Capitals somehow become the inverse of Michael Corleone’s “Godfather III” line, no?

Just when I thought I was in, they pull me back out.

The nails-tough guy in net from the first two games lets in a soft goal or two. The Great Eight goes AWOL for a game or more. The top line sputters. The puck winds up on the Caps’ half of the ice twice as often. The howls grow in decibels in the visiting arena.

Next thing we know it’s Hefty-bag day in Ballston. It doesn’t matter the year, the coach, the goalie, the role players; just when we summon the strength to finally believe again after all the wrenching losses and early exits this time of year — after a hope-is-lost 2-8-1 start this season — it feels like they’re on the way to singeing the soul before June. The Rangers. Montreal. Pittsburgh. Tampa Bay. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

“Same ol’, same ol’,” was the collective message from the masses after Game 4.

Every time a sincere belief develops that this franchise can make a playoff run resulting in the most glorious moment of its history, nada. And it’s not just the fans who remember where they were when Pat LaFontaine’s goal pierced their innards in the wee hours of the morning.

After Mike Green blasted home the winner in overtime to put the Caps up two games to none in the series oh, last Saturday, some of my office mates were actually asking me in what city I thought I should book my second-round hotel. Since 2009, in my imagination, I have stayed in opulent suites in Vancouver, Chicago and Los Angeles, and I have made fun of other writers who thought they would spend a night following the Cup.

And here they are again, for a pendulum-swinging moment on home ice. Home ice should bring comfort just in case it goes the distance. But Washington is 1-3 in Game 7s at Verizon since 2008. Except for Sergei Fedorov beating Henrik Lundqvist in 2009, home ice has been hell in Game 7.

The doom and distorted reality begin to set in. What could’ve been a first-round coronation is now perhaps the Caps’ last home game of the season. Even the montage at the end of the game that pumps everybody up, where the Guns N’ Roses anthem booms through the speakers and Tom Green makes the crowd go berserk, can at times begin to feel forced, rote.

It’s hard to unleash the fury when sometimes all it amounts to is letdown and monotony.

Emotions are all over the place. It becomes personal. We want to believe they might pull it off, that Alex Ovechkin meant it when he said he grew up and learned not to hurt us again. We play the old, this-time-things-will-be-different game.

Bruce Boudreau and Dale Hunter couldn’t climb the mountain, but Adam Oates knows what he’s doing, right? We tell ourselves Oatsie is the great hybrid of Gabby and Hunts, an offensive wizard with strong defensive principles to back it up.

Ovechkin, Green and Nicklas Backstrom aren’t the young guns anymore; they’re the aging howitzer: smarter, wiser, getting more sleep, taking better care of their bodies, yet still with the flare and firepower to rattle an elite goaltender. They’ve learned their lessons painfully, but the experience has made them want the ultimate victory so much more.

This could be the year, we know it. It’s all right to go back on the ice. They won’t let us fall through and freeze this time. Honest.

And nearing 7 p.m., we either shuffle into the building, show up at the sports bar or turn on the television at home, adrenaline coursing — partly eager for the puck to drop and the hope to begin anew and partly scared the end is very near again.

Though the Ovechkin era has never given us so much as a berth in the Eastern Conference finals, we don’t care. Their uninspired play in Game 4 might be telling us to get out before we get burned, but we’re all-in-again suckers.

And if they do get by the Rangers, the same trepidation and tumult happens the next series. They have trained us to be leery of anything good that happens.

There are simply too many trust issues that have gone on way too long with this franchise to believe deeply in the viability of raising the game’s grail. But then, there are too many glimmers of greatness to back out now.

Either way, we’ve been talked back into a volatile relationship, excited it could finally work out but frightened of the pain we know too well.

Not until they’re up two goals with five seconds left in the deciding game on the last night of the hockey season will we ever really believe with all our heart.

But we also know that if that moment ever comes — when we actually get to spend the night with Stanley and the commitment is cemented forever — it’s going to be so damn worth it.

I mean, that’s how it would be for all of you. Me, I’m just hoping to write a dispassionate story about an inanimate object.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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