“I was born February 28, 1992,” David Duber said late Saturday night, just moments after the Caps stayed alive with a pulsating 4-2 win over the Penguins. That was just a few weeks after the Redskins beat the Bills in Minneapolis, “the last championship this town has ever seen,” as Duber put it.
That makes Duber part of Washington’s Loss Generation, the young folks who either were born after D.C.’s last major title or are too young to remember it. That 1992 title they don’t remember is a seminal moment for them, since their experience as local sports fans has mostly involved sadness. Those are the people I quote obsessively in all my woe-is-Washington fan stories, and they come by the pain honestly. They’ve seen a lot of wait-til-next-years. They’ve seen a lot of thought-we-had-its. They want it pretty badly.
Duber, as you’ve guessed, is the fan who went viral Saturday evening, when Nicklas Backstrom celebrated his game-tying and season-saving goal right in front of him. Because Duber, as you know, was wearing not a Caps jersey, but a T-shirt reading “Fire Dan Snyder.” There was something so Washington about the moment, and that didn’t change when I talked to him. He’s still a Redskins season ticket holder despite all his frustrations, and he’s a die-hard fan of all the local teams. He even wore the “Fire Dan Snyder” shirt to the Washington Valor’s debut game.
He wore his T.J. Oshie jersey to Games 1 and 2 of this series, but the Caps lost both, and Same Oldism had a vicious outbreak around town. You could feel Same Oldism inside Verizon Center when the Caps went down 1-0 on Saturday night, and again when they went down 2-1. You could see it in the empty seats and in the number of Penguins fans inside the arena. You could see it in my pregame historical research, which, trust me, was pretty gruesome.
Duber’s also superstitious. So for Saturday night’s elimination game, it was time to put away the Oshie jersey and bring out the heavy stuff.
Things started getting weird after Backstrom’s goal, for him and for all of us. A team that has looked tight for much of this series suddenly relaxed into its January self, with a sustained offensive onslaught that hinted at Washington’s regular season dominance. That led to two goals in 27 seconds from Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin. An arena that was tense and quiet went berserk. A fan base that was wrenchingly worried at least could consider whether to hope. A season that could have ended Saturday night got at least 48 more hours. You considered possibilities.
“See you Wednesday night,” anthem singer Bob McDonald said to Verizon Center staffers as he left the building, which still made me shake my head. I used to kind of wriggle my way into believing good things might happen for Washington teams, and now I mostly expect the worst. Pessimism is contagious, in a way.
“You can’t be that way,” said McDonald, who’s as big a D.C. sports fan as there is. “You have to have optimism.”
“How?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s a great question.”
Well, I don’t have optimism. Not yet. I’ve played the “this team is different” card too many times. Yes, Braden Holtby finally looked like himself in the third period. Yes, Washington’s edge in scoring chances finally yielded dividends. Yes, Backstrom and Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky brought back all those visions of what it would be like for Washington to finally have three dangerous lines clicking at the same time. Yes, the Cavs and Cubs and Red Sox all needed to be near-death before finally winning. Save all that stuff until we see whether this one actually does end differently. Until then, I’m just taking everything one moment at a time.
It’s funny, though. You don’t want to get caught looking foolish, but you also want to remember the biggest moments in case this turns out to have been a significant night. Holtby’s monstrous first few minutes of the third period could be the stuff of bedtime stories if something wacky happens this spring. But if the Caps lose Monday night, those first few minutes will be forgotten by next week. Ditto for Backstrom’s goal, which came just moments after NBC’s Pierre McGuire had called out the team’s unsung star for disappearing in this series.
“Obviously it was a huge, huge goal by Backy,” Ovechkin said. “It turns our mind around, we start believing and we start to play the way we’re capable.”
Same for Kuznetsov’s goal from an angle that defied physics, and same for those conversations in the press box about who would handle which parts of the season obituary. Because of deadlines and the realities of our business, you have to have those conversations during night games. If something wacky happens this spring, we’ll always remember those conversations we had about dissecting the bitter end, and how to properly ascribe blame. But if the Caps lose Monday night, we’ll just have those conversations all over again. Was this night worth remembering? Or was it a tiny footnote in an unhappy chapter from an epic tale of sadness? Damned if I know.
I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as momentum in a hockey series, or that the better team will necessarily win a given game, let alone a given series. So we’re all stuck, for now, not making any conclusions larger than the most obvious ones. The Caps didn’t go out quietly, not yet. They looked mediocre for much of Game 5, until suddenly they were pouring it on in the third period. They were disappointing and underachieving, and then they weren’t, at least not yet.
“I live for these moments, for these type of games,” Kuznetsov said in a nearly empty locker room.
As Holtby sparkled and the offense erupted, you at least wondered. Meanwhile, Kirk Cousins tweeted “C’mon Caps, we can do this!” and Josh Norman tweeted “The Caps going MAYHEM!!! right now” and Mark Rypien was shown waving a towel on the Verizon Center scoreboard, and a Redskins season ticket holder was going viral for wearing a Barstool Sports shirt expressing both his love and his frustration with his favorite football team.
“I’ll always be a Redskins fan, and I’ll always be a D.C. sports fan,” Duber said.
Maybe we’ll all remember the moment Backstrom scored and Duber showed up on television as the start of something special for his Loss Generation. Probably we won’t. But we’ll all be watching on Monday, anyhow. And Duber, I’m guessing, is not alone in suddenly feeling a bit better about local sports.
“I think that, no matter what, we’re going to see a Game 7,” he said. “I don’t know whether we’re gonna win it or not. From my mouth to God’s ears we are. But I guarantee I’m back here on Wednesday night, Game 7, wearing this.”
The Caps going MAYHEM!!! Right now..
— *Joshua R. Norman (@J_No24) May 7, 2017