Anyhow, something felt different with the whole Caps thing. Stale, a bit. Stale home-baked bread. I knew they were supposed to be worse. I knew they were supposed to take a step back. Even when they started winning, and then mostly stayed winning, and took hold of first place, and won their 300th division title in the past 11 years, it still seemed almost inappropriate to feel much of anything. The underlying numbers were bad. The long-term prospects were worse. There was a goalie controversy. The coach was on an expiring deal. The organization always seems reluctant to trust its young talent. The team reposed on a throne of lies. Something wasn’t quite right. Something would go wrong. Something always went wrong.
Like I said, I still watched when I could, but sometimes it felt more like a responsibility than anything else. I’m guessing I wasn’t alone. Numbers published by Sports Business Journal this week showed that Caps local TV ratings were down 8 percent year-to-year and lagged well behind Wizards ratings. The Wizards this season were endlessly frustrating, the sort of team you wanted to scream at until you lost your voice, and then to pelt with moldy mango slices. The Caps … you’d just share a melting mango sorbet with them while staring at the sidewalk.
So then this playoff series started, against the opponent least likely to excite the passions of your loins. Like, Philadelphia would cause some passion. Pittsburgh or the Rangers or Toronto or Boston would cause some passion. Columbus … has a cannon?
And so you can yell at me and tell me I’m off by myself in Piney Orchard in this one, but I don’t think I am. Sure, I wasn’t covering the Caps in the playoffs for the first time since Alex Ovechkin entered the league, but I think some fans probably shared my general game-by-game emotional progression, which I will describe below.
Game 1: The Caps lost in overtime. They had a two-goal lead. They gave up two third-period power-play goals, both after offensive-zone penalties. This dude Artemi Panarin looked like the best player on the ice. Philipp Grubauer was meh. I don’t even think I reacted much when that overtime goal went in. I just kind of expected it. It was a rerun that hadn’t been very good in the first place. It was whatever. Pass the sorbet.
Game 2: Oh, cool, another two-goal lead lost, another overtime coin flip, another brutal home loss. This one had the added benefit of outlandishly comical statistics, like this one: The Caps outshot Columbus 58-30 … and lost! Of course they did!
So then there was everything else: the fact that they had to switch goalies, the fact that home-ice advantage was a gashing and ruthless lie, the fact that Metro was being a jerk, the fact that only five teams in the history of the NHL had lost the first two games of a best-of-seven series, in overtime, at home (and all five lost their series). Somehow that breezy apathy from the Game 1 loss already burned off, and many of us veered straight into existential questions about the nature of the universe and sports fandom and life itself, or at least we made brooding jokes.
Through two games, the Caps had led for more than three times as long as the Blue Jackets — and were down two games to zero!!! This was every Caps series ever! Pass the bourbon!
Game 3: Hm. A kind of fortuitous bounce in a multiple overtime game in which the Caps dominated the extra session, and the team that deserved to win actually won? Well … that was a little weird. And different. Maybe it didn’t mean much. But it was odd, anyhow, and it at least staved off the ultimate humiliation. There was some measure of relief.
Game 4: That … might have been the best game the Caps played in months. And so look, even though we are all wise and reflective people who knew in our minds that we’d seen this story before, the thought at least occurred: the Caps were actually better than the Blue Jackets, and actually could have been leading three games to one at this point, and now had all the momentum, and probably this was all very silly but it kind of felt like maybe they would win this series lol.
“No, you stop that,” you told yourself.
“But the math totally checks out,” you responded.
“Yes, but we have seen this 471 times before, and at this point the only proper response is really to hide underneath the bed and turn off your brain until the series ends,” you told yourself.
“Yeah, probably, but …,” you responded.
Game 5: Well, huh, there were a bunch of weird bounces and strange breaks and curious happenstanceries and odd puck-luck things in this game and … the Caps won. Not really in the playbook, that.
At this point, if it were any other team in the history of organized professional sporting endeavors, you would be pretty confident that the better team with momentum and home-ice and one of the best goal-scorers of all time and a 3-2 series lead and an inevitable second-round meeting with destiny was gonna take care of business and win this series. But you better shut your dirty mouth right now and go stick your head in a dish of mango sorbet.
Seriously, the only reason to pick against the Caps after Game 5 was the Caps. And that was a good reason. And so you could argue yourself in a circle for two days, which you probably did.
Game 6: Wow the Caps won a clinching game … comfortably? By dominating? And Alex Ovechkin had a relaxing and extended showcase for his greatness? And it never really got terrifying at the end? And the Caps are on to the second round with a tidy four-game winning streak and not really any new emotional wounds oozing emotional pus or whatever?
I know, I know, I know: Expectations should be nil, and this team is already playing with house money, and of course Pittsburgh should be the overwhelming favorite, and we’ve seen this second-round series three times over the past decade, and ye who heed not history’s mighty foot of doom are destined to get stomped upon yet again, and I swear to you if you even think “what if” you are just placing your poor tender oft-battered heart upon the cutting board for mean people to do terrible, awful things to it.
But. Uh. What if?
(Please, I beg of you, two weeks from now, print this out and coat it with moldy mango slices and stale bread and bourbon and whatever other tortured words I have used here and pelt my desk with it. I pack my lunch now. I will eat this printout along with my cold rice and beans.)
(Just don’t try to tell me a tiny little whisker of hope hasn’t tickled your chin at any point this week, even as you try to catch that accursed whisker and burn it with kerosene. I won’t believe you. Because the underlying numbers are actually improving, and the team looks maybe better than it has all season, and Ovechkin is scoring, and Holtby is back, and I know you are covering your eyes but it’s not untrue.)
(Really, I do know better, and you do, too, but some of this defies the power of the brain.)
(Anyhow apparently I’m paying attention again.)
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