Hours after Justify broke the 136-year-old “Curse of Apollo” on Saturday by winning the 144th Kentucky Derby despite not racing as a 2-year-old, the Capitals defeated the Penguins, 6-3, at Capital One Arena to take a 3-2 series lead. That gives Alex Ovechkin and Co. two chances to end D.C. sports’ absurd 20-year conference finals drought.
Since the Capitals closed out the Ottawa Senators in Game 5 of their second-round series in 1998 to advance to the Eastern Conference finals, the Capitals, Nationals, Redskins and Wizards have combined to go 0-13 in games that would have clinched a conference final berth. The Capitals have lost six such games, the Nationals four, the Redskins two and the Wizards one.
“Just get behind us, please,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said Sunday on the subject of his team being so close to the third round once again. “That’s all I ask. We’re the ones playing. Trust me. There’s not a player, a coach, trainer, ownership, GM who is not trying to do everything they can to win this series. Trust me. We’re trying as hard as we can. At the end of the day, that’s all we can promise. Get behind us. Help push us forward, and we’re going to give you our best.”
D.C. sports fans are behind the Capitals, as are the memories of these 13 games:
1. Jan. 15, 2000, NFC divisional round: Buccaneers 14, Redskins 13
After defeating the Lions, 27-13, in the wild-card round at home, the NFC East champion Redskins traveled to Tampa Bay for a meeting with Tony Dungy’s Buccaneers. In a defensive struggle that featured almost as many punts (18) as first downs (22), Washington built a 13-0 lead midway through the third quarter, only to watch Tampa Bay battle back behind quarterback Shaun King.
With 1:17 remaining and Washington trailing 14-13, Redskins kicker Brett Conway lined up to attempt a 52-yard field goal. Holder Brad Johnson couldn’t handle Dan Turk’s low snap, Johnson was tackled on the broken play, and the Buccaneers ran out the clock.
“Things happen,” said Redskins return man Brian Mitchell, who opened the second half with a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. “No one can point a finger. That snap wasn’t there. But we had a lot of opportunities in that game. It shouldn’t have come down to that.”
2. Jan. 14, 2006, NFC divisional round: Seahawks 20, Redskins 10
Six years later, the Redskins avenged their playoff loss to the Buccaneers with a win at Tampa Bay in the wild-card round, setting up a divisional-round showdown at Seattle. With a raucous home crowd behind them, the Seahawks limited a banged-up Clinton Portis to 41 yards on 17 carries and overcame the loss of Shaun Alexander, who suffered a concussion late in the first quarter.
“You can pat yourself on the back and say, ‘Job well done,’ ” Redskins wide receiver Santana Moss, who had 103 receiving yards and a touchdown, said after the game. “But there’s always going to be some emptiness in your heart knowing you got so close and didn’t make it.”
The Seahawks won the following week to clinch their first NFC title before losing Super Bowl XL to the Steelers. The Redskins haven’t sniffed the Super Bowl since.
3. May 13, 2009, Eastern Conference second round, Game 7: Penguins 6, Capitals 2
Two days after forcing a Game 7 in their second-round series with a Game 6 overtime win in Pittsburgh, the Capitals laid an egg at home. Sidney Crosby opened the scoring with a power-play goal midway through the first period, and Craig Adams scored eight seconds later to stun the Verizon Center crowd. The Penguins built a 5-0 lead before Alex Ovechkin scored late in the second period.
“It was definitely anticlimactic,” Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said. “It certainly wasn’t the way I would have envisioned it, scripted it, you know, whether we won or lost. … Usually you have one or two players who have an off night, but not 15. I don’t know how it happened, why it happened, but it did.”
Crosby finished with two goals and an assist for the Penguins, who went on to defeat the Red Wings for their third Stanley Cup title.
4. May 12, 2012, Eastern Conference second round, Game 7: Rangers 2, Capitals 1
After alternating wins through the first six games of their series, the Capitals and Rangers returned to Madison Square Garden for Game 7. Brad Richards scored less than two minutes after the opening faceoff, and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist stopped 22 of 23 shots in New York’s win.
“It’s terrible feeling now. All I can say, we do our best, and it’s probably best team I played,” Ovechkin said after the game, which was the 13th of Washington’s 14 playoff games that year decided by one goal. “You know, group of guys and atmosphere, everybody was — it’s unbelievable to play, and I hope everybody gonna stay here till next year. It’s hard.”
5. Oct. 12, 2012, NLDS, Game 5: Cardinals 9, Nationals 7
The Nationals led 6-0 after three innings and 7-5 entering the ninth, but they couldn’t finish off the defending World Series champions at Nationals Park despite being one strike away. Daniel Descalso and Pete bleepin’ Kozma had consecutive two-out, two-run singles off Drew Storen during St. Louis’s four-run ninth inning.
“There’s a bad taste in my mouth,” Storen said. “It’s going to stay there for a couple months, and it’s probably never going to leave.”
“You can see the see finish line and taste it,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “You’re an out or two or a pitch or two away. And you don’t win it. You got to get all 27 outs before you can pack up the bats. We don’t know what to do tomorrow. It’s Saturday, and we don’t have a game.”
6. May 8, 2015, Eastern Conference second round, Game 5: Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)
Leading the series 3-1, the Capitals took a 1-0 lead midway through the third period at Madison Square Garden on a Curtis Glencross goal, which came after officials waved off a goal by Joel Ward for incidental contact with Lundqvist. Washington was still protecting its 1-0 lead in the final two minutes when Chris Kreider fired a shot that deflected off Brooks Orpik’s skate and past Braden Holtby.
Ryan McDonagh scored the game-winner 10 minutes into overtime, keeping the Rangers’ slim hopes alive.
“We’re okay right now,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “We knew we’d see their best effort today, and we did. I don’t think they’ve seen ours yet. Hopefully they’ll see ours.”
7. May 10, 2015, Eastern Conference second round, Game 6: Rangers 4, Capitals 3
The Rangers didn’t see Washington’s best effort in Game 6. Instead, New York built a 4-1 lead at Verizon Center and held on to force a Game 7 after the Capitals’ late-third-period rally came up short.
“We thought we’d come in tonight and obviously the goal was to knock them out and move on,” Washington forward Tom Wilson said. “But that’s adversity. That’s going to happen. We’re on a little bit of a different route than we imagined and we hoped for, but we’ve got to take the adversity and turn it into something great.”
Ovechkin made a guarantee after the loss.
“We’re going to come back and win the series,” he said. “We’re going to play our game, and we’re going to come back and we’re going to play Montreal or Tampa.”
8. May 13, 2015, Eastern Conference second round, Game 7: Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)
Ovechkin’s guarantee fell flat. Derek Stepan scored 11:24 into the first overtime, giving New York its 10th straight win in an elimination game at Madison Square Garden and sending the Capitals packing just shy of the Eastern Conference finals again. The Rangers became the first team to overcome a 3-1 series deficit in three consecutive seasons.
“When you lose in overtime like this, Game 7, it’s an empty feeling,” Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom said. “I thought we deserved better as a team.”
“You saw two very good teams go nose-to-nose, with just inches, an inch here, an inch there,” Trotz said. “I think everybody here probably predicted seven games, and you got it.”
9. Oct. 11, 2016, NLDS, Game 4: Dodgers 6, Nationals 5
With a chance to clinch a trip to the NLCS on the road, the Nationals chased Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw in the seventh inning with three two-out runs to tie the score, but Chase Utley put Los Angeles ahead for good with an RBI single off Blake Treinen in the eighth.
“Man, that’s what baseball is all about right there,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said after the loss at Dodger Stadium. “A matter of will.”
With Max Scherzer scheduled to start on full rest back home in D.C. for the decisive Game 5, Washington fans had to still like the Nationals’ chances, history be damned.
10. Oct. 13, 2016, NLDS, Game 5: Dodgers 4, Nationals 3
Scherzer surrendered the game-tying home run to Joc Pederson on his 99th pitch before Baker went to his bullpen in the seventh. Five relievers combined to allow three more runs in the inning as Los Angeles built a 4-1 lead.
Washington made things interesting with two runs in the seventh to cut its deficit to one. The Nationals had the tying and winning runs aboard with one out in the ninth before Kershaw, working on one day’s rest, replaced closer Kenley Jansen, who was out of gas after throwing 51 pitches over two-plus innings. Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop out and then struck out Wilmer Difo for his first career save.
“We just came up short,” Baker said. “I’m proud of my guys, of how they played this year.”
11. May 10, 2017, Eastern Conference second round, Game 7: Penguins 2, Capitals 0
Bryan Rust broke a scoreless tie 8:49 into the second period, and that was all the support Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury needed as Pittsburgh improved to 9-1 in postseason series against Washington.
“You wonder how much disappointment you have to put yourself through before you can find a way to get the job done,” forward T.J. Oshie said, speaking for every Capitals player and fan.
“It’s just extreme disappointment,” Washington defenseman Karl Alzner said. “There are times when you know you’re not the best team in the playoffs. But we honestly thought we were the best team in the playoffs, and showed flashes of it. But when you don’t even get past the second round, it’s extreme disappointment.”
12.) May 15, 2017, Eastern Conference second round, Game 7: Celtics 115, Wizards 105
Welcome to the party, Wizards. Three days after John Wall forced a Game 7 with a buzzer-beating three-pointer at home, Celtics reserve Kelly Olynyk scored 26 points off the bench to carry Boston into the third round.
Wall, who talked openly all season about how reaching the Eastern Conference finals was the Wizards’ goal, did not score in the final 19 minutes.
“It’s not a satisfied season to me,” Wall said after Washington’s NBA franchise fell short of the conference finals for a 38th consecutive year.
13.) Oct. 12, 2017, NLDS, Game 5: Cubs 9, Nationals 8
One of the strangest games in Nationals history ended in familiar fashion: with a season-ending loss at Nationals Park.
“That was the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of,” Jayson Werth said after Baker lost a pair of replay challenges, Matt Wieters played the worst defensive game of his career and the Cubs scored nine runs despite going 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position. “So many things were off the wall. Maybe I’ll go home and watch it again and want to torture myself.”
“Just a gut punch again,” Scherzer said. “Here we are in Game 5, play our hearts out, everybody lays it on the line, everybody’s fighting, doing everything they can. It was a nail-biter of a game again. It just sucks. . . . This game’s cruel sometimes. . . . What a series.”
What a drought.
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