“Maybe the Caps flame out in the first round of the postseason,” I wrote a few springs ago, just before the playoffs started, just before everything went up in smoke. “Maybe they need another shut-down D man, or a sturdier guy in net. Maybe Ovechkin disappears under pressure. Maybe they’re overrated. Maybe they never win the Cup. But enough with the talk about how they’re only leading the NHL because of their sorry division. They’ve had a fabulous regular season, and it’s not because of their division.”
You can basically ignore most of those words up in that accursed paragraph, which could have been rewritten virtually every April over the past 10 years. Just concentrate on six of ’em. “They’ve had a fabulous regular season.” This was in 2010. And they had. And then it went splat. Because that’s how things went around here.
The regular seasons were fun, and thrilling, and worth cherishing, just like many of us insisted. They gave you a rush, because they gave you proximity to greatness. They made you feel like you were witnessing something historic, something that mattered. And then, with 100 percent certainty, they ended in emptiness, and you were left with doubt. Eventually, you — or at least I — wondered whether the whole thing was some sort of mirage, or at least, less than it seemed.
Many words have been written about what happened over the last six weeks, a stretch of hockey games that started with extreme cynicism (at least in my household) and ended with the opposite. Before the Stanley Cup finals start, though, I’d like to make the silliest, most immature and self-centered observation of all: I feel, somehow, in some way, personally validated by the Caps being where they are now. That’s super dumb. But whatever.
Like I’ve told you a million times, I’m not a fan, not of the Caps, nor of any other team. But that doesn’t really matter, because when you watch enough wins by any team, or enough goals by any player, or enough celebrations from any fan base, you wind up investing some part of yourself into a belief. Like many of you, I’ve invested an absurd number of hours into reading about, and writing about, and watching these Alex Ovechkin-era Capitals, with this general belief: They were building toward something big.
Along the way — many times along the way, in fact — I decided that they were really, really good. I decided that in 2009, when I thought they might win the Stanley Cup. And in 2010, when I thought they might win the Stanley Cup. And even in 2012, when I thought they might coin-flip their way to the Stanley Cup. And definitely in 2016, when I thought I was reading about, and writing about, and watching the best team I had ever seen up close, in any sport. I still kind of feel that way. Those 2016 Capitals were really, really, really good. I wrote that. I told people that. I believed that.
Then they lost to the Penguins, and I started to doubt. That doubt was maybe a badge of honor; it meant I had been around the franchise long enough to inherit its hazy humors, its stifling cynicism. At some point, I stopped believing. I wasn’t all that surprised when they lost to Pittsburgh last spring, even though those Capitals were good, too. (If you never doubted at all, you should feel extra validated.) I strongly believed they should have fired their coach last May, because why the heck not. (Okay, that part isn’t validating, either.) I kept waiting for this season to crater.
By the time the Caps lost those first two games to Columbus last month, I was almost proud of my dead soul. Of course they would blow two-goal leads. Of course they would lose in overtime. Of course the season would end miles from the final round. Maybe we were all missing something. Maybe we were wrong the whole time.
So here we are. Validated might be the wrong word. But it’s close. Because the 12 wins this spring did something other than put the Caps on the verge of history. They ended the arguments, ensuring that the past decade wasn’t pointless. We weren’t wasting our time on pretenders all those January nights, when we could have been reading “Elmer Gantry” or “Another Country” or “Jane Eyre,” or whatever great works of fiction we will probably never read. We weren’t just throwing away our February weekend afternoons watching NBC matinees when we could have been, like, taking hikes, or visiting wineries, or whatever people do outdoors in February. We weren’t fooling ourselves when we read (and wrote) all those pieces about greatness.
Mostly, we won’t have to spend the rest of our lives reading about how it was all a bust. It wasn’t fake. It wasn’t a mirage. The past decade was real. The best era in the history of this franchise was real. Ovechkin was real, and he is the best D.C. athlete of the past 50 years — and he didn’t need some grizzled, denture-wearing Jason Arnott or Mike Knuble or Justin Williams to make him whole. He was the wise old veteran who would come up big in the clutch during the finals run.
This is all stupid, of course. Ovechkin isn’t a better hockey player now than he was six weeks ago. His career wouldn’t have been tainted if Artemi Panarin’s slap shot in the final minutes of Game 3 in the first round had missed the post and gone in, giving Columbus a 3-0 series lead. The value of our time during all those January nights for years and years has nothing to do with 12 wins this spring. The regular season can’t be pointless. The entertainment value of fandom can’t only be tied to titles. Frankly, we were probably wasting our time even if the Caps win the next four titles, and we all sort of know that.
But who cares if this is silly? Fans will still be crushed if the Caps lose to this expansion team, and they should be. But the doubt is gone now. It really was building toward something, even if the exact blueprint — breaking up the core and relying on a bunch of rookies and some Australian person in the season’s most important game after an erratic regular season and a terrifying first round — seems a bit confused.
Ovechkin’s legacy is different because of those 12 wins. The Rock the Red era’s legacy is different, too. All those times we called the Caps fabulous, and really thought it was true? Well, we weren’t crazy. We weren’t wrong. And there’s something personally satisfying about that, no matter how silly it might be.
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