Seven thousand two hundred and sixty-five days after the Washington Capitals were swept out of the Stanley Cup finals, the stupidest streak in sports is gone, killed by those Capitals, who advanced to the Eastern Conference finals Monday night. They did so by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, and really, that’s the only way this stupid streak could have ended: with the Caps beating the Penguins, in overtime, during the accursed second round.
With their Game 6 win, of course, the Capitals also did a service for the entire region. They ended a narrative that made no one happy, that wasn’t cute or goofy, that failed to interest the rest of the country, that had no redeeming charm or quirks and no catchy nickname. They were playing their B-team, and they were sizable underdogs. But they did not choke, gag or falter. They did not blow a four-goal lead after a player accidentally skated into a sinkhole. They just won.
Washington has fetishized this next round of the playoffs, because Washington hasn’t seen this particular round of the playoffs in more than 7,000 days — not in Major League Baseball, not in the National Hockey League, not in the National Basketball Association and not in the National Football League. (Yes, there have been MLS titles in there. You know what I mean.)
There had been 71 completed seasons in those sports since a Washington team advanced to a conference final. That means there have been 284 league semifinalists, spread across the entirety of this grand continent, plus wherever Edmonton is. Zero of the 284 league semifinalists represented Washington. Cincinnati was the next closest city on this stupidest of all lists, but Cincinnati has had just 45 seasons of similar futility. That hardly compares. President Trump’s third term will be long over by the time Cincinnati hits 71 seasons.
And so almost by force, Washington’s 20-year slump turned the league semifinals into some Holy Grail, holy only to the District. It’s as if there’s been some giant pot of gold and riches waiting in Pittsburgh, and we’ve all agreed that the most important goal in the world is reaching … Breezewood. Like, obviously that’s not true. But when you keep running off the highway a half-mile from the Breezewood Sheetz, you change the dang goal a bit. Maybe it’d be nice to eat a breakfast sandwich, drink a cup of coffee, and then see what happens next. Breezewood isn’t nirvana, but it’s so very much better than driving into a ditch.
Well, this time, Washington flew past the ditch and made it to Breezewood, and that fact deserves at least 24 hours of greasy bliss. And if this season ends before anyone even makes it to the Turnpike, that’s kind of sort of okay now. Because you never, ever have to hear about the stupidest streak in sports again.
And so this one was for the late Dan Turk, who started Washington’s no-good dirty streak with that bad snap in Tampa in early 2000, aborting a potential game-winning field goal attempt against the Buccaneers before it could even happen. The Redskins really, truly could have won that game. They somehow didn’t. And that became a trend.
This one was for Gilbert Arenas, whose Wizards got swept out of the second round by the Miami Heat’s Shaquille O’Neal and Dwyane Wade in 2005 — and then never got back. This one was for John Hall, who missed a 36-yard fourth-quarter field goal in Seattle in 2006, when the Redskins were one of football’s hottest teams and were putting a scare into the Seahawks. Hall’s miss sapped Washington’s momentum and kept the deficit at seven points; Seattle held on and later played in the Super Bowl.
It’s for Alex Ovechkin, who had a breakaway chance to spark the Caps in their Game 7 meeting with the Penguins in 2009. He didn’t score, the Penguins turned the game into a rout, and Ovechkin became the face of this streak: individual brilliance, team success and one playoff heartbreak after another, spray-painted onto his legacy.
This one was for Bruce Boudreau, who brought the most joyous and entertaining hockey Washington had ever seen, only to see it all crumble in the postseason. This one was for Drew Storen, who became baseball’s face on this list. Storen had the ball in his hand with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5 in 2012; Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma then plastered him with two two-run singles and a reputation he might never live down.
Things have been busier since then, the losses piling up quicker and quicker. This was for Dale Hunter’s coin-flip Caps coming up one flip short (2012), for Robert Griffin III’s shredded knee and shredded career (2012), and for a choked-up Randy Wittman, who helped turn the Wizards from a laughingstock into a legitimate playoff team but could go no further (2014). It’s for Tyler Clippard and Stephen Strasburg staying idle while poor Aaron Barrett was sacrificed in public (2014), for Paul Pierce becoming an indelible Washington hero if only his last-second shot had been launched a split second earlier (2015), for Joel Ward’s waved-off Madison Square Garden goal that set the stage for another unbelievable collapse (also 2015).
It’s for Wilmer Difo, who had to face Clayton Kershaw as his team’s final out in 2016’s Game 5, and for Max Scherzer, who made it through six gutty innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers only to see Washington’s bullpen crumble after he left. It’s for T.J. Oshie, who missed a partially open net in Game 7 against the Penguins last spring, and for Braden Holtby, who got exactly zero goals of support in that loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champs.
It’s for John Wall, whose brilliant 2017 playoffs ended with a Game 7 disaster in Boston, and it’s for Scherzer and Matt Wieters and Dusty Baker, who all had a hand in that fateful fifth inning last October, when this very blog item was already completely written and ready to publish, once we got that first photo of the Nats celebrating together on the mound. (Let me emphasize that point again: I literally wrote this item in the fall of 2017. But you can never leave a blog post behind. This is like the last blog post out of Hanoi. We’re bringing you home alive, pal.)
But mostly, of course, it’s for the fans who remember some, or most, or all of these losses. We have a habit sometimes of talking about Caps fans and Wizards fans and Nats fans and Redskins fans as if they’re distinct groups, and to some extent they are. There are folks who root for the Redskins and the Orioles, and folks who like the Caps but not the Wizards, and newcomers who only support the Nationals, and surely those who care only for the Caps.
But there are thousands and thousands of die-hard Washingtonians who support all four teams, and who have suffered with every near miss, every what-might-have-been, every “man, if only … ” I’m not sure if anyone watched every minute of every one of these losses, but I’m positive that some of you came close. Sixteen separate times, one of these teams was among the last eight contenders in their respective leagues. Sixteen separate times, they failed to take the next step. Sure, Ryan Zimmerman has a point: It’s great to live in a place where these opportunities come so frequently. Fans, though — especially younger fans, for whom playoff losses became a grating cliche — just wanted to see something different.
And then the Capitals, the best and truest exemplars of Washington’s playoff agony — finally ended it Monday night, in a gritty and gutty and lovable performance. Maybe they won’t win another game this season, or maybe they will win the Stanley Cup. Maybe we will forget that Evgeny Kuznetsov goal, the Braden Holtby resurrection, the Alex Chiasson squeaker, the Ovechkin deep sigh of relief. But a whole lot of people won’t forget their temporary unburdening Monday night.
“I feel like this was winning a Stanley Cup,” one fan said on 106.7 the Fan on Tuesday morning.
“I literally started to cry,” wrote a fan who watched the game from Guatemala.
“I screamed so loudly my husband was worried the neighbors would call the cops,” wrote another.
“I’m pretty sure I woke up the entire neighborhood,” wrote a third.
“Simple,” wrote a fourth, when we asked how people were feeling. “Happiness.”
So either way, raise a glass to the death of the lamest, meanest and absolute stupidest streak in sports. May we never mention it again.
(And for all of you yelling at me for being too negative: Yeah. This is the last time. I promise.)
(Note: This item originally misstated some details of the Dan Turk and Paul Pierce games, and referred to the NBA as the National Basketball League. The mistakes have been corrected.)
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