Dear Tony: For years you have called the Capitals "choking dogs." However, this year you haven't said anything bad about the Caps. (Have you been ill?) Your colleague, Bill Gildea, said if the Caps lost to Tampa Bay, it would be their worst loss ever. Do you still think they are choking dogs? Signed, Anxious in AOL-Land.
Of course they're Choking Dogs. Do you think I'd voluntarily give up a phrase that good? Heck, I'm still trotting out The Bandwagon.
But I don't think this particular choke is up there with their real showstoppers, like the choke job against the Islanders in 1987, when the Caps blew a 3-1 lead in the series, and lost two of the last three, including Game 7, at home. Or the choke job against Pittsburgh in 1992, when they again blew a 3-1 series lead, and again lost two of the last three, including Game 7, at home. At least in 1995, when the Caps again coughed up a 3-1 lead in games to Pittsburgh, they had the good sense to blow the last game on the road. (Although the combined score of Games 6 and 7 was 10-1, Penguins. Brutal!)
Some will argue this was worse because the Caps managed to lose to Tampa Bay -- which has been such a joke in previous years that instead of singing the national anthem before games, they brought a comedian to center ice, and had him click his heels and recite the name "Khabibulin," "Khabibulin," "Khabibulin" until a cow flew by. I don't want to intimate Tampa Bay stunk. But with every ticket you bought, you got air freshener.
Yet as awful as Tampa Bay has been, it still finished in front of the Caps in the same division this season. So what does that say about the Caps?
And even though after going ahead 2-0 in games the Caps lost four in a row (including losing all three games at home!), the Capitals never got to the point where they were just one win away from taking the series. It's true, at 0-2, Tampa Bay was ready to roll over like a seal. The Caps took more gas than a Suburban. But without 3-0 or 3-1 the heartbreak doesn't rise to previous high-water marks. Sure, there's excruciating pain to lose a final game in triple overtime. But the Capitals have never won a playoff game that went past double overtime. On my list of all-time Caps chokes, this is a top-5, but not a top-1.
But it's the first real big choke in the Ted Leonsis Era, and it's got him in a tither. Leonsis, who seems to really like the word "heartbroken," used it again the other night when he described how he felt about the Caps' home attendance. (Earlier this season Leonsis said he was "heartbroken" at the Caps' poor start, and the players' apparent lack of work ethic. It won't surprise me if Leonsis ends up being "heartbroken" by who wins Mr. Personality either.)
Leonsis said it was "incredibly disappointing to have 14,000 people in the building for the final playoff game." Leonsis lashed out at Washington Sports and Entertainment (read as: Abe Pollin) for sticking him with back-to-back days for the Caps' first two home games, and Easter Sunday for the third. Easter may well be a bad date (though St. Louis sold out for the Blues and the three NBA playoff games far outdrew the Caps). But maybe the fact that the Capitals have gone 2-10 in their last 12 home playoff games kept the crowd down. Maybe people don't come because they expect the Caps will lose. (Curiously, the Wizards played on Easter Sunday the last two years, and last year they sold out.)
Leonsis thought he could use the Internet to revolutionize the marketing of the sport. He's kept his end of the bargain. He answers e-mails. But where's the revolution? The Caps don't sell out. And here they are back with the first-round-and-out playoff blues again.
What must really frost Leonsis is how much money he seems to have flushed down a hole with the Caps. He didn't want to buy the Caps in the first place. He wanted the Wizards. It now appears he got snookered. The Caps bleed money, and Abe Pollin still owns the Wizards. And get a load of this: The Wizards sold out every game the past two seasons because of Michael Jordan -- whom Leonsis brought to Pollin!
Leonsis went out and spent a gazillion dollars on Jaromir Jagr, who's supposed to be the Jordan of hockey. But the only similarity is that neither of them took their teams to the playoffs in 2002. This year Jagr did. But he didn't score a single goal in the Caps' four straight losses. And he didn't guarantee the Caps any sellouts. Jagr has been a dud. Leonsis says he has "some real reevaluating to do on the kind of investments we're going to make in the team." It probably means the spending spree is over. Maybe he'll look to move Jagr.
Everything that happened against Tampa Bay has happened here before. They had a team down, and couldn't knock them out. They got good goaltending, and the other team got great goaltending. They had guys who didn't score when the series was on the line, and the other team had guys who did. Would anybody rather have Martin St. Louis than Jaromir Jagr? Of course not. (Nobody would want Martin Kansas City over Jagr either.) But for four games Martin St. Louis was the guy to have. All these games that came on bad dates -- there were two teams on the ice for all those games, and the other team won. It seems to always happen this way: The Caps gave their best, and lost. "Ils ont donne leur meilleur mais perdu." That's French for: Always Bet On The Other Guy.