Capitals fans gather at the Washington bench to cheer their team after Game 7 in Tampa. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Two years ago, after LeBron James and the Cavaliers ended Cleveland’s 52-year title drought and left Washington feeling lonelier in championship purgatory, a peculiar D.C. sentiment started occupying my email inbox and social media pages. Some local fans were upset about how liberally sportswriters and others described Cleveland’s longtime anguish as a curse, but when we referenced Washington’s sporting mishaps over the past quarter-century, we just focus on futility, dysfunction and mismanagement. As a columnist who had just completed his first year here, I was taken aback.

“Why can’t we be cursed, too?” That was the gist of their annoyance. To an outsider, it was a crazy thought, because being cursed implies that a mystical, wicked force has taken over, with the sole intention of causing harm. You can’t really combat a curse. You can try to outlast it, but curses aren’t as concerned with time as impatient mortals are. Why the heck would anyone want to be associated with a curse? It’s a request to suffer indefinitely.

After exchanging a few messages, I realized that this faction of fans just wanted to be something more than awful or embarrassing or choke artists or underachievers. They needed some way to define the pain. They needed it to be understood that D.C. is a better sports town than this, and that something beyond logic and control must be contributing to this cycle of following teams that consistently come up short. We all grieve how we need to grieve.

In my three years in town, I’ve quietly said the District’s initials stand for Doubting City. Sometimes, when I’ve been admonished for being too optimistic, I’ve told myself that maybe it should stand for Doom Conclusion because people can be so hesitant to hope. I’ve also gone with “Don’t. Can’t.” As in: “Don’t tell me what’s possible. The (INSERT TEAM NAME) can’t do it.”

Here are the Capitals now, playing for the revered Stanley Cup, the first Washington team to be able to dream of a championship so legitimately in 20 years. If they can beat the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in a best-of-seven series starting Monday, they will earn the city’s first championship in a Big Four pro league (NHL, NBA, NFL or MLB) since the Redskins beat Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVI on Jan. 26, 1992.

Harry Connick Jr. sang the national anthem at that Super Bowl. Gloria Estefan was the star of the halftime show. Since that glorious day in Minnesota, the Super Bowl has doubled in age. The Washington football team has fallen from model franchise to circus. Baseball has returned to town, and the Nationals have grown into a winner that hasn’t yet won enough. Michael Jordan came out of retirement to play for the Wizards, and it resulted in him getting fired from his front-office job. So much more has happened, but all the while, the Capitals have always been there, advancing to the playoffs in 19 of the past 26 seasons, forever knocking.

During this playoff run, they’ve already eliminated the city’s conference-final drought. You don’t have to hear anymore about how Washington teams had gone 71 seasons without advancing that far. Now comes the ultimate opportunity, one that the Capitals haven’t had since 1998. Win four more games, and the city is theirs. They become the model for success. They’re currently the new inspiration that short playoff appearances don’t have to be the norm, the symbol that a new local pro sports movement could be afoot. But this is the chance to have the greatest impact.

For as much as the Capitals have done to revise the conversation, D.C. won’t go from “Don’t. Can’t.” to a can-do sports city without the championship and the parade and all those Stanley Cup cameos around the region. The doubt is dissolving, but it could disappear, at least symbolically, with one last triumph. It’s an opportunity for the city to get out of its own head.

Championship chases are always interesting. We talk about a team doing it for the city, but a city is so vast, and its interests are so diverse. The various local fan bases don’t have as much overlap as perceived, and they often can waste time being jealous of one another’s attention or success. But when one team makes a deep run, when it makes a true push for a title, there is a unifying effect.

D.C. may be a transient city, and die-hard Capitals fans may have to share their excitement with hordes of bandwagon hoppers, but passion has been galvanized. This is about a hockey team, but it’s also bigger than hockey. It’s about developing a new story to tell, one that can eliminate the angst that you feel every time a local team plays in a deciding playoff game, one that can create a hopeful atmosphere upon which all of the teams can draw.

It happened a little bit when the Capitals broke through against their hated rivals from Pittsburgh and made it to the Eastern Conference finals. But the conference final drought was a weird mental barrier created while consuming the same kind of potent misery that made those fans want to be considered cursed. It was an odd coping mechanism, in a sense: If you can’t collect banners, collect misfortune. But the reality is — and it will always be this way — disappointment defines the sports experience. Even teams that supposedly win all the time don’t win all the time. Championships are celebrated in such a grand manner because they are difficult and rare and require so much hard learning and correcting to accomplish.

The allure of sports fandom shouldn’t be the expectation of enjoying success. It’s the release of emotion. It’s a place where it’s okay to feel intensely, and while there are moments in which fans go too far, this serves mostly as a cathartic diversion.

It’s dangerous, however, when you feel one emotion for too long. That applies to the elation of watching championship teams. Isn’t it amazing how spoiled and annoying people can get when they’ve celebrated too much? And that definitely goes for misery. I’m sure the city has grown increasingly cynical about sports over the past 26 titleless years, but it isn’t too jaded, and you know that because the Capitals are making this major metropolitan area feel like a proud small town again. Some would suggest that is a bad thing. I think it’s simply a sports thing. Such civic pride is the super power of these games.

If that’s a little too mushy for you right now, revisit your emotions if the Capitals can win four more games. The Doubting City is so close to a new attitude.