Somewhere, a Capitals fan watched Evgeny Kuznetsov’s thrilling overtime goal against the Penguins on Monday night and reacted with a slight fist pump and a hint of a smile, a restrained celebration some might argue was befitting a series-clinching win in the second round of a postseason tournament that requires four rounds to win. Most every other Capitals fan went bonkers.
While Alex Ovechkin and Co. quickly turned their attention to Friday night’s Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the past three days have been a cathartic celebration for D.C. sports fans, who hadn’t seen one of the city’s four major teams advance to the conference finals round in 20 years, and who hadn’t seen the Capitals eliminate their arch-nemesis since 1994.
Predictably, there were jokes about the magnitude of this accomplishment, which probably wouldn’t have been celebrated as fervently in cities whose teams have enjoyed more postseason success.
Also predictably, former Post columnists Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon attempted to rain on D.C. sports fans’ parade, which wasn’t an actual parade, because come on, it’s only the second round, and that would have been excessive. On Tuesday, Kornheiser, who referred to the Capitals as “choking dogs” in the playoffs for years, wondered whether the team’s fans might be reveling in Washington’s win a little too much. He referenced the game-winning goal call by Capitals radio voice John Walton, whose reaction to Kuznetsov’s overtime tally threatened to blow the roof off PPG Paints Arena.
“He starts screaming, ‘The demons have been exorcised!'” Kornheiser said on his podcast. “Well, that would be fine if this was the Stanley Cup, but this was the second round.”
During his weekly chat on Tuesday, Post columnist Thomas Boswell suggested that that the Capitals’ win “was a big step — especially a big step emotionally and psychologically — for Washington teams and fans.” Kornheiser didn’t disagree.
“I’m not denying at all that this is an enormous win, psychologically and in all ways,” Kornheiser said. “What I am suggesting is the possibility that they and their fans think, okay, this is all we had to do, and the rest of it doesn’t really matter.”
But when Kornheiser shared that opinion with Wilbon during Tuesday’s episode of “Pardon the Interruption,” Wilbon took the opportunity to criticize D.C. as a sports town. (Again.)
“I haven’t said this in a while, but what I used to say and got in trouble for locally, Washington, D.C. is a minor league sports town,” Wilbon said. “It’s because of opinions and attitudes like that. … I don’t want to hear any fan, or they are lame and minor league in this town, who says winning two series and beating Pittsburgh to go 1-5 in the Ovechkin era, or whatever it is, is enough. That’s lame. That’s Miami- and Atlanta-like.”
Capitals players have squashed the idea that they’re at all satisfied, though it’s hard to imagine them saying anything to the contrary.
“As a group, we wanted to give our city more, but more doesn’t mean a conference final. More is a Stanley Cup,” goaltender Braden Holtby said.
Walton, who shouted about exorcised demons after Kuznetsov’s goal in Pittsburgh, agreed that there’s more to be done.
“I think beating Pittsburgh and the way that they did it, and the fact that it had been the bane of this organization’s existence for two decades, that’s obviously positive,” Walton said Wednesday. “I think the counter argument, and this is the one I believe, is the window for this group — the chance for Alex Ovechkin, the chance for Nick Backstrom, especially, but for all of them to a certain extent — they don’t have that many chances left. You don’t get many chances. If you’re Washington, you haven’t had any chances to get this far. You may not get it again. As good as it was against Pittsburgh, it’s over. In my mind, it’s over. Enjoy the moment — and we did, as a fan base, as a city, I know that we did — but it’s not a Stanley Cup. If you lose to Tampa in six [games], I don’t know that you’re going to feel very good about it two weeks from now.”
Forty-four percent of the respondents in an informal Twitter poll said they now consider this season a success, regardless of how Washington fares against Tampa Bay. Adam Stringham, Jon Press and Stephen Pepper of the long-running Capitals blog Japers’ Rink weighed in on the same question during a recent podcast.
“If you had asked me, like 10 minutes after the game [Monday], I would’ve said, ‘Yes, it was a successful season regardless,'” Stringham said. “Relative to my expectations, this season was 100 percent a success. … Now I’m thinking, yeah I want more. The players want more, the fans want more. But I think, let’s say they don’t win another game, I think deep down, it’ll take me a bit, but I’ll say, okay, it was a successful season. But I want more.”
“I come at this from a point of view where I view it as an entertainment product, and if this wasn’t entertaining — and if Game 6 and the day or two afterwards haven’t felt pretty darn good to you as a fan — maybe fandom isn’t for you,” Press said. “It would be nice to win four more games, it would be nice to win eight more games, but if you’re just waiting for that and that’s the only way you can be happy, maybe start feeding homeless animals or something like that. … I think that it’s been, by many measures, a successful season. Let’s see what they can do to build on it.”
On Tuesday’s episode of “PTI,” Wilbon said the Capitals would need to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals for this to constitute a successful season in his mind. Then, and presumably only then, will it be okay for D.C.’s sports fans to celebrate a bit, as Wilbon did by wearing a Cubs jersey and Cubs cap on ESPN after his beloved Cubbies advanced to the World Series for the first time in 71 years in 2016.
Toward the end of Tuesday’s Capitals segment on “PTI,” Kornheiser compared Washington eliminating the Penguins in the second round to the United States defeating the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Olympic men’s ice hockey tournament. (Miracles and moments worth celebrating aren’t limited to championship games or series.) “Nobody even remembers we had to beat Finland after that,” Kornhesier said.
Ten years after the Americans beat the Soviets, Wilbon was at Madison Square Garden when John Druce’s overtime goal lifted the Capitals to their first conference finals appearance in franchise history. Wilbon captured the feeling and relief of that second-round triumph in The Post the following day.
“To win the Stanley Cup, they have to beat the favored Boston Bruins, then Edmonton or Chicago or St. Louis in another series,” Wilbon wrote. “That’s how far the Capitals are from winning the whole thing. But for right now, it simply doesn’t matter. This whole franchise has been judged on its inability to get out of the division in the playoffs. Capitals teams — several better than this one — have never, not once, won a second-round playoff series until Friday night when newfound hero John Druce tipped in Geoff Courtnall’s pass nearly seven minutes into overtime to end this maddening game.”
Twenty-eight years ago, before he was shaming an entire city of sports fans, Wilbon had it right. Replace the Boston Bruins with the favored Tampa Bay Lightning, and Edmonton, Chicago and St. Louis with Vegas, Nashville or Winnipeg. That’s how far the Capitals are from winning the whole thing in 2018. But for right now, and at least until the puck drops on Game 1 Friday night in Tampa, it simply doesn’t matter. For some fans, beating the Penguins was enough to deem this season a success. For others, it will take the Capitals advancing at least one more round. There’s nothing lame about either of those opinions.
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