The Capitals’ fortunes changed in the glorious spring of 2018, when Ovechkin and Co. finally broke through to capture the franchise’s first Stanley Cup. With the Nationals back in the playoffs for the first time since that wild ride, and fresh off their own breakthrough, it’s hard to avoid comparing the teams again, especially considering their ongoing love affair.
“There’s something about this year that’s different,” Nationals fan Tom Lundregan told me after Washington’s comeback win over the Milwaukee Brewers in the wild-card game. “It’s the same way we thought about the Caps two years ago. You can’t put your finger on it.”
The Nationals advanced to the NL Championship Series for the first time in their history with a rousing, 7-3 comeback win against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the deciding Game 5 of the NLDS on Wednesday. Did Howie Kendrick’s 10th-inning grand slam, which broke a 3-3 tie, not feel a bit like Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov’s series-clinching overtime goal against the Penguins 16 months ago? One came in extra innings, the other required overtime. They both happened on the road, against opponents responsible for previous playoff heartbreak, though of course much more so in the case of the Penguins.
Kendrick’s slam secured the Nationals’ first berth in the NLCS, while Kuznetsov’s goal put Washington in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in 20 years. The Capitals then knocked off another postseason nemesis, the Tampa Bay Lightning, to reach the Stanley Cup finals, while the Nationals’ path to the World Series now goes through their original playoff tormentor, the St. Louis Cardinals.
(It turns out that Wednesday’s Game 5 win also had eerie echoes of the last time a Washington baseball team won a postseason series, Game 7 of the 1924 World Series against the Giants. And if you look hard enough, you can probably draw parallels between this Nationals team and the 1978 Bullets, but I digress.)
Think back to the wild-card game, when the Nationals entered the eighth inning trailing the Brewers 3-1. Washington loaded the bases with a controversial hit by pitch, a broken-bat single and a walk before Juan Soto singled to right. The ball took a strange bounce under the glove of Milwaukee right fielder Trent Grisham, allowing the go-ahead run to score, and while you might not have immediately thought back to Lars Eller’s fluky, double-overtime goal in Game 3 of the Capitals’ first-round series against Columbus, well, others were.
The Nationals’ “puck luck” continued in the NLDS, when Joc Pederson’s line drive with the bases loaded in Game 4 landed inches foul and the wind knocked down what appeared to be a home run by Max Muncy later in the game.
In hindsight, there was at least one familiar comparison between the teams in the regular season, too. Consider Nationals Manager Dave Martinez, whose hot seat was scalding on the afternoon of May 23, when a four-game sweep at the hands of the Mets left the Nationals 12 games under .500. The Capitals didn’t start quite so poorly the season they won the Stanley Cup, but questions swirled about Coach Barry Trotz’s job status after his team suffered consecutive embarrassing losses at Nashville and Colorado in November. (If the Nationals continue to mirror the Capitals’ title run, expect Martinez to be introduced as the manager of the division rival Phillies sometime after the World Series parade.)
The Capitals needed seven games and consecutive shutouts by Braden Holtby to eliminate the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals. Capitals players are all aboard the Nationals’ bandwagon and will no doubt be watching to see if Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg have something similar in store for the Cardinals.
The best comparison of all between the teams, though, would be how they celebrate a title.
“The way they partied afterward, I think everyone in this clubhouse would love to do as well,” Nationals outfielder and hockey fan Adam Eaton said of the Capitals before the wild-card game. “We’re not quite hockey players, so I don’t know if we’re going to be swimming in any fountains or anything. But, hopefully, like I said, they’ll inspire us to get there.”
In the words of Capitals radio play-by-play man John Walton, it’s okay to believe.
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