"I wish we didn't have a hockey team!"
Those were the parting words a frustrated Caps fan shared with the rest of the train before storming into the Dunn Loring Metro station on Easter Day, 2003. The outburst followed another Capitals playoff collapse, this one courtesy of a gut-wrenching three overtime Game 6 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning — a team that stormed back from a 2-0 series deficit and won four straight to steal the hearts of Caps fans.
No one on that Metro train took issue with that fan's assessment. While his opinion was no doubt an exaggeration, it was an impulsive, emotional reaction from a member of a defeated fan base still in shock from another horrible let-down. Make no mistake about it, that playoff loss hurt.
After Washington’s first-round defeat of the Rangers last Saturday, there was a section of the fan base that wanted to play Montreal or Pittsburgh this spring to avenge recent playoff defeats. Personally, I had no problem seeing Tampa make the next round. There is a score to settle with them too.
That 2003 series was a nightmare. The Caps easily handled Tampa the first two games — winning both games by three goals — and causing Tampa coach John Torterella to resort to bringing up the Caps choking history as a means of motivation. Let him talk, we thought, the series is firmly in the Caps control. However, there was a quirk to the schedule that had the teams playing games 3 and 4 on back-to-back nights, not an ideal situation for the older, slower Caps team. Still, win Game 3 at home and the Caps were going to win that series. Lose Game 3, and the younger, faster Lightning would probably tie the series at two the next night.
The latter happened, but not without controversy.
The accepted rule in the overtime of the playoffs is that you only call the egregious penalties. In overtime of Game 3, Bill McCreary called a dubious penalty on Jaromir Jagr. It was a bad call, not worthy of an OT penalty. Making matters worse? A few seconds later, the refs called Capitals defenseman Ken Klee for a roughing penalty. I, along with thousands of Caps fans, was incredulous. Up until that moment in my life, I had never seen a 5-on-3 in overtime of the playoffs. Even Lightning players were surprised. Needless to say, the Lightning converted, the Capitals collapsed and the rest is history.
I was never so mad at the NHL like I was that night. It's not like the Caps were playing chippy that game and it caught up to them in overtime. No, the refs simply inserted themselves into deciding the outcome of the game and it cost the Caps. I didn't sleep a wink that night, knowing full well that the series had turned on one call. It wasn't fair (but that defines being a Caps fan). My lasting memory of that 10-day nightmare was Vinny Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis taking over the series and celebrating after their Game 6 victory.
With hindsight, the Caps weren't a Cup contender that year and would have likely lost in the second round. But this collapse still hurt as Tampa, up to that point in their history, was an awful franchise. It signaled that things weren't right with the Jagr-era Caps. The team was mentally soft, they were aging, Jagr was becoming a liability and Bruce Cassidy's coaching left much to be desired. The implosion that eventually landed Alex Ovechkin began when that same core group tanked the next year.
The Lightning, however, went on to lose in the next round to the Stanley Cup champion Devils, but they used their 2003 to springboard their run to a Stanley Cup in 2004. In my mind, if the Lightning don't beat the Caps in the spring of 2003, they probably don't have the playoff experience needed to win the Stanley Cup the next year.
Eight years have gone by, but the wounds from that series haven't healed for me. Of all the horrible calls that have gone against the Caps in the past decade — the Flyers "interference" goal in Game 7 in 2008, the non-call when Boyd Gordon was interfered with allowing Evgeni Malkin to waltz down the ice on a 2-on-1 and score the game-winner in Game 5 of the 2009 Pittsburgh series, and the washing out of the Game 7 Ovechkin goal last year against Montreal — the reffing in Game 3 of the Tampa series still has me seething the most.
A Caps victory would go a long way in helping ease that hockey pain.
Prediction: Caps in six