The Caps Lost, But They Won

Thomas Jenkins of the District, left, and Ed DuBois of Brookville celebrated a Washington Capitals victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins last week.
Thomas Jenkins of the District, left, and Ed DuBois of Brookville celebrated a Washington Capitals victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins last week. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By John Feinstein
Friday, May 15, 2009

There is a tendency among those who follow sports to focus on the result. At the end of a game, it is the scoreboard that tells the story.

Every once in a while, though, the scoreboard doesn't tell the whole story. In the case of the Washington Capitals' 2008-09 season, which ended Wednesday night with a deflating 6-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the seventh game of their Stanley Cup playoff series, the journey was more important than the outcome.

To be sure, losing to the hated Penguins, a franchise that has tormented the Caps for years, was a huge disappointment. To lose so convincingly in Game Seven after the first six games produced some of the most riveting hockey seen anywhere in years was even worse.

But even though the Caps came up a win short of advancing to hockey's version of the Final Four -- the conference finals -- their accomplishments this season go well beyond the ice, and beyond wins and losses. They have done what once seemed impossible: turned Washington into a hockey town.

There is a difference between being a hockey town and being a town with a winning hockey team. Eleven years ago the Caps reached the Stanley Cup finals. Verizon Center was sold out during those playoffs, because the team was winning and people in Washington -- as in all cities -- like jumping on winning bandwagons.

When the Caps failed to make the playoffs in three of the next four seasons, Verizon Center looked like a ghost town most nights. Often there were as many fans pulling for the visitors as for the home team.

It began to change in 2004, when the team drafted Alexander Ovechkin with its No. 1 pick in the National Hockey League draft. Ever so slowly, owner Ted Leonsis and General Manager George McPhee built a dynamic young team around the brilliant Ovechkin. When Bruce Boudreau became coach in November 2007, the team began to jell. They made a late run to reach the playoffs last year, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of Game Seven of the opening round.

That spring rally -- the Caps didn't clinch their playoff berth until the season's last weekend -- set the stage for this season. Ovechkin -- with all due respect to Pittsburgh's brilliant captain, Sidney Crosby -- is now the best player in the league. The Capitals won 50 regular-season games and finished second in the Eastern Conference.

They had to come from behind, down three games to one, in the first round to beat the New York Rangers and set up the showdown with Pittsburgh. The last game notwithstanding, the series and the Ovechkin-Crosby match-up more than lived up to the hype.

But this season and these playoffs were about far more than wins and a final loss. Hockey players are the most likable professional athletes on the planet. Maybe it's because so many are small-town kids, or because so few become marketing superstars, or maybe it's just the nature of the sport -- selflessness is an absolute for any team to succeed.

The Redskins will always be this area's obsession, but the Caps are here to stay as an important part of Washington's sports culture. The fans who poured out in droves all winter aren't going away. They're all-in now, and they know that this team is going to compete at the top levels for years. Ovechkin is 23 and has a long-term contract. Most of the key players are in their 20s.

Leonsis is smart enough to know that being rich doesn't mean he knows anything about how to build a hockey team. He will continue to leave that to McPhee and Boudreau.

Most important, the players get it. They made no excuses in defeat, they didn't whine or rationalize. They promised to get better. Before they did that, though, they made clear that they understand how fortunate a team is to have the kind of support they have had throughout this remarkable season.

After the traditional handshakes on Wednesday, the entire team remained on the ice while the Penguins exited. Then, led by Ovechkin, they stood in a circle and raised their sticks in salute to their fans. It was the kind of moment rarely seen in sports and almost always reserved for victory celebrations.

Yet it was not only appropriate, it was perfect. The Caps' season ended in defeat, but their performance -- on and off the ice -- earned them the cheers they heard as the final seconds ticked down. The way the players recognized those cheering them is proof that those cheers were well deserved.

John Feinstein is a contributing writer to The Post. His book "Are You Kidding Me? -- The Story of Rocco Mediate's Extraordinary Battle with Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open" will be published next week.

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