On the road and facing elimination in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series against the Penguins in 2009, the Capitals fell behind 1-0 after the first period. That’s when assistant director of media relations Paul Rovnak and a fellow Capitals staffer decided to take matters — and a Capitals-branded puck — into their own hands.
Rovnak and his co-worker hustled out of the Mellon Arena press box and made their way across the street to the construction site where the Penguins’ new home, which would open in August 2010, was already starting to take shape.
“It was a pretty brazen thing to do, considering we only had 17 or 18 minutes” between periods, Rovnak, now the assistant athletic director of communications at the University of Minnesota, recalled on Tuesday. “We took a couple of pictures and buried the puck in some mud, thinking we could change the fortunes of the Caps and put some kind of curse on the Penguins.”
Rovnak said the idea was inspired by the Red Sox-loving construction worker who buried a David Ortiz jersey under two feet of concrete while helping build the new Yankee Stadium in 2008. When the Yankees got word of the attempted jinx, they excavated the jersey, which took more than five hours of drilling.
After burying the puck, Rovnak and his co-worker hurried back to Mellon Arena for the remainder of Game 6, which the Capitals came back to win, 5-4, on a David Steckel overtime goal. Game 7 was two days later in D.C.
“The small fan in you thinks, ‘Did we just shift the momentum?'” Rovnak said. “I remember talking to people, like, ‘Oh my gosh, it worked,’ as foolish as that sounds. Then Pittsburgh crushed Washington in Game 7 and won the Cup.”
The Penguins would bring the Stanley Cup to that same construction site later that summer, oblivious to the fact that there was a Capitals puck buried somewhere beneath the soil. Rovnak left the Capitals after the 2010 season, which ended with a first-round loss to the Canadiens in another excruciating Game 7 in D.C.
There was still hope for his curse, however. On Feb. 21, 2011, Alex Ovechkin’s power play goal gave the Capitals a 1-0 win in their first game at the Penguins’ new arena. “That’s awesome,” Rovnak recalled thinking. “The puck’s there.”
The Capitals won their next game at what was then called CONSOL Energy Center before losing five straight in the Steel City. Washington is 6-9 during the regular season at the venue now known as PPG Paints Arena, and 4-5 in the playoffs. But the Caps took two of three games there this spring, including Monday’s Game 6, which clinched Washington’s first trip to the Eastern Conference finals in 20 years. Is there such thing as a curse delayed? Perhaps, after nine years of marinating, the puck is finally having its intended effect.
Before the start of Monday’s overtime, Rovnak received a text from his friend Nate Ewell, who hired him to join the Capitals’ communications department in 2007. Ewell, who has also since left the team, stayed behind in the press box while Rovnak headed out on his 2009 mission. “That buried puck has to pay off someday, right?” Ewell’s text read.
Rovnak, who still keeps close tabs on the Capitals and considers himself a fan, was putting his kids to bed when Evgeny Kuznetsov beat Matt Murray less than six minutes into overtime. Rovnak watched the replay and listened to John Walton’s call of the game-winning goal before searching through his old photos, looking for shots from that time he buried a puck in the Pittsburgh mud.
Still, after the Penguins eliminated the Capitals in the second round each of the previous two years while capturing back-to-back Stanley Cup titles, he has no illusions that his silly curse worked.
“I’m just glad that the Caps were finally able to win one,” said Rovnak, who tweeted three photos from the 2009 puck burial Monday night. “There’s been a lot of turnover with the Caps, but there are still a lot of people in the front office that I’m friends with. They’re halfway there. Obviously you’re happy for the players, but you’re happy for the people who work in the front office, too, because I think sometimes they take it just as emotionally as the players do. … To beat that team, there’s a lot of people who are standing a little taller at Kettler today because of who it was.”
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