More than one participant in Post Sports columnist Thomas Boswell’s weekly online chat with readers asked about what’s happening with the Washington Capitals, who won the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals to get within two games of the Stanley Cup Finals. Boz used two questions — one about the franchise’s tortured history, and another about the contrast between the Wizards and the Caps — to discuss what goes into a championship run. Here is his lightly edited response.
I don’t think that this year, or this series, is going to fit into that “narrative” of Caps history. As I’ve been saying here, and in columns, for the last couple of years, it’s inevitable that we construct narratives to explain our own experience and the experience of teams that we follow. Sometimes, that’s an insightful, constructive exercise. Sometimes it’s complete bunk.
But the story can change. And I think it’s changing now for the Caps.
In a short series — and seven games is short in the NHL and MLB — never forget that you are not watching a total examination of two teams designed to determine which team is really, truly, fairly better. You are watching an entertainment event where everyone involved in creating the “product” has figured out how to enhance drama, introduce luck, ramp up the emotions of both teams, then smash those emotions with fluke moments, bad calls and brilliant plays by the opposition.
Right now, the Lightning have been stunned and amazed by how wonderfully the Caps have played, but also by two amazing, shocking turns of events which were the fulcrum of Games 1 and 2. In the last seconds of the first period of Game 1, the Lightning went from thinking they were going to be tied 1-1 to realizing they were down 2-0. And in the final 62 seconds of the second period of Game 2, they went from a sane 2-2 tie to a shocking 4-2 deficit.
The Caps’ Evgeny Kuznetsov said after Game 2 that those 62 seconds were the key to the game. “That’s the game changer,” he said. “It’s always hard when you give up goals at the end of the period.”
I think Washington fans are learning — right now — one of the most important lessons about playoffs in pro sports. It is not always your Best Team that goes the furthest in the postseason. It is often the most close-knit, the luckiest and the most emotionally resilient. Jayson Werth always told his Nats teammates that the Phillies team which won the World Series was, at the most, only “the third-best Phillies team I played on.” Werth always said, correctly, that the goal is to make the playoffs, arrive as healthy as possible, build a team with internal chemistry and resilience, and then ride out the emotional monsoon together and see where you end up when the storm is over.
Fans build narratives around teams. So do sportswriters. I doubt that either matters — or matters much. But what I can tell you from the inside, from watching decades of teams in various sports, is that the teams themselves build up narratives about who they are, where they are going and why. And that matters. It doesn’t decide who wins. But it is a factor.
Then, when events start to play into your narrative of your team, it often helps raise the collective level of play. If we could explain and quantify these things, would we even bother to watch sports? So far, almost everything is reinforcing the Caps view of themselves as a better “team,” a more on-the-same-page unified team, than they’ve been in the past. The comeback from down 2-0 to a win in six games against Columbus fit the story that they want to believe about themselves. Beating the Penguins took the weight of the world, or at least the weight of six million Washingtonians, off their shoulders.
Some wondered how they would come out against the Lightning. I wrote a column about the death and burial of the D.C. Troll last week. I’d have been surprised if the Caps didn’t come out fast and loose, confident and hitting hard against the Lightning. That doesn’t mean they’d necessarily win. Tampa Bay is excellent. But to think the Caps wouldn’t be energized by beating the Pens … well, imagine if you were on the Caps. Wouldn’t you feel like “Okay, we finally got rid of that damn Pens thing. House money! Lets go kill ’em. Lets play right, but also have some fun!”
That’s how they’ve played. That doesn’t mean it’s how they’ll continue to play. But I think Tampa Bay will have to raise its game a lot or they’re toast. And even if they do, I don’t think the Caps will wilt. It’ll just be a helluva battle, but with the Caps having two wins in hand.
Sports jinxes are symbols of everything we don’t understand and can’t measure about the power of pessimism and the burden of disappointment. It’s good when a hex dies, even a stupid second-round curse. I think the Caps are benefiting from it now. I also think that the bond between D.C.’s two “get over the hump” teams — the Caps and Nats — is going to be interesting to watch. Barry Trotz and Dave Martinez don’t know each other personally. But I suspect they’d really get along.
This may not be The Year for either. These things are not written — or predicted — in advance. They evolve, they happen before our eyes, and often to our amazement.
But what is happening with the Caps in this postseason is exactly how Those Seasons feel as they grow and become reality.
Read more Caps coverage: