One of my most vivid Washington Capitals memories as a youngster is the final game of the team’s 1979-80 season. In their sixth season in the NHL, the Caps needed to beat the Atlanta Flames (and for Vancouver to lose later that night) to qualify for the playoffs for the very first time. They held a lead with less than five minutes to go, but Atlanta tied it up and the game ended in a 4-4 tie. Nine-year-old me was crushed — but I had no idea that that night was just a tiny preview of a lifetime of excruciating Caps playoff disappointments.
By the middle of that decade, the Caps had become an NHL power and were considered a Stanley Cup contender. And that’s when they first earned their reputation for not performing in the playoffs. In 1985, they blew a 2-0 lead in games and lost a series. The next year, they lost to a team that finished 29 points behind them in the regular season. And in 1987, they took a 3-1 series lead before losing three games in a row, the last in four overtimes in the famous Easter Epic.
For the next 20 years, most Caps playoff appearances included at least one of those four features. Sure, the team finally advanced to the conference finals in 1990 with a team that had finished under .500 but got hot at the right time; and yes, they reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 after the top three seeds in their conference were upset in the first round, but both times the Caps were quickly swept in the next round. What is remembered is the nickname they acquired from a well-known local sports columnist because of all those ugly losses: “choking dogs.”
When the Ovechkin era began in earnest with a playoff appearance in 2008, finally it seemed a young, dynamic Caps team was ready to shed that old label and regularly become a postseason power. And then history just repeated itself. They lost 2-0 series leads (to Pittsburgh in 2009, and the Rangers in 2013). They got beat by a team they were much better than in the regular season (Montreal in 2010). They blew 3-1 series leads (Montreal in 2010, and the Rangers in 2015). They lost an excruciating multi-OT game (Rangers, 2012). And that “choking dogs” thing never went away.
Before the Red Sox started their title run in 2004, Bill Simmons wrote about how he wanted the Red Sox to win the World Series not just because he wanted to win a championship, but because it would make the Red Sox a “normal” team. He meant that every time the Sox lost a playoff game before 2004, they couldn’t just lose, they were always “cursed.” And in the hours since the Caps lost to Toronto on Monday night, I finally understood what Simmons meant. The Caps can’t just lose anymore — they’re always “chokers.”
— Express (@WaPoExpress) April 19, 2017
Certainly, the Caps haven’t earned much benefit of the doubt when it comes to overcoming adversity — although the team did come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a series against an inferior team in 2009, and won a game seven on the road against the defending champions in 2012. But we’ve gotten to the point where the local and national media, as well as some fans, treat anything negative the team experiences in the playoffs as not just poor play or a loss, but as a character flaw, a “choke” — and a harbinger of certain doom.
Have a bad first period in Game 1 of a series? “See, nothing’s changed, they’re still chokers.” Lose a game in double overtime? “Choking dogs.” Go down 2-1 in a best-of-seven series, as they did this past Monday night? “Why did we even pay attention to the regular season? What’s the point? They’re just choking dogs.”
Some seem to act as if it would be better for the Caps to finish in third place in their division every year and barely qualify for the playoffs, instead of being the best team in the league the last two regular seasons. Sports radio hosts have been openly speculating over the past week on whether the Caps will lose a significant chunk of their fan base if they lose this series against the Maple Leafs. (This despite the fact that no big-four team in Washington has won a title since January 1992, and in that time, the three non-hockey teams in town have qualified for the playoffs 18 times in 62 combined seasons.)
As crazy as this dynamic is, though, the only way for it to change is for the Caps to win a championship. So come on, Caps, play every first period like you did Wednesday night. Keep winning. There’s nothing Caps fans want more than to see Alex Ovechkin hold a Stanley Cup over his head in June. It would be awesome to celebrate a long-awaited title. And it would also be great to be a fan of a “normal” team again.
Eric Fingerhut is a lifelong Washington sports fan.