Turn out the lights. Pull the covers over your face. Curl up into a ball. Sob if you must. All forms of self-medication are permitted. None may be effective.
It is fair, at this moment, to evaluate where you choose to put your recreational energy. Wednesday afternoon, there was reason for those emotions that are damned dangerous when it comes to the Washington Capitals, hope and optimism and everything that we have been taught to bottle up and keep in the last row of the pantry, difficult to reach.
By Wednesday night, with boos rattling around Verizon Center and Alex Ovechkin leaning his left elbow against the boards in disbelief, there was only another dark version of despair. There were the Pittsburgh Penguins, as they always are against the Capitals in these moments, celebrating a 2-0 victory in the seventh game of the second round of the playoffs. And there were the Capitals, doubled over at the waist again, a mural that could be painted across the back side of Verizon Center, on 6th Street NW, just so we can be realistic about the horrors that annually occur inside.
“It’s hard to say right now,” said Ovechkin, asked the impossible question of why this happened specifically on Wednesday night. But he is the most important and prominent player in the history of the franchise, and he knows that any analysis here isn’t just about one night, one series, one season. It has to be about the whole expanse of it: nine trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs, never a trip even to the conference finals.
That’s hard to do. So rewind that tape again. The themes, they are the same, and they are played to The Imperial March from “Star Wars.”
“I expect the same questions over and over again,” said Nicklas Backstrom, Ovechkin’s longtime running mate, “when you lose.”
Which is every year. This is seven times in the Ovechkin Era with a loss in a seventh game. But this one was weightier. It just was. This wasn’t just a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy, as the Capitals that lost to Montreal in seven games in 2010 and the Capitals that lost in six games to these Penguins a year ago both did. This was a team that, with a win Wednesday night, would have been the best team remaining in the playoffs.
This was a team that was just better than the Penguins most of the series. This was a team that needed to cross this threshold, to advance to the conference finals for the first time since 1998 — heck, for just the second time in franchise history.
Because if not, the loss would add another excruciating layer.
“I don’t really look at it that way, to be honest with you,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “. . . I think every year you come in, it’s a different group. And obviously some guys have endured more of those tough losses than other guys. But I think every year you’re kind of taking the challenge upon ourselves with a different group.”
You know what group doesn’t change, Brooks? The fans. The Caps, over the years, have tried to convince us that the cumulative pain of all these losses — and make no mistake, they were the heavy favorite Wednesday night, from Vegas to Adams Morgan to Squirrel Hill — doesn’t matter to the players.
They come and go. They block out the noise.
That might be a fine strategy when you’re playing a series. But in the immediate aftermath, it’s disrespectful to the regular people who keep showing up, year after year after year.
Even if there’s no such thing as a curse — and we can debate that for the next, oh, decade or so — there are enough open wounds here to make the people who keep buying tickets, who keep pulling on the jerseys of players present and past, who have filled Verizon Center every night for the better part of a decade to wonder about making such an emotional investment. The players, the coaches — they’re paid. They have to do it. But buying in for the fans and the town: That’s optional, isn’t it?
So, then, the feeling as the evening unfolded: dread. It just hung there, it did, over the entire affair. Not from the start, when the Capitals generally acted like the Alpha dogs of this series. That’s what they had been for the better parts of Games 5 and 6. No reason to stop now.
No reason for the crowd to be given even the tiniest opportunity to convert optimism into — well, into the fear this franchise has simply taught them to feel.
But from the very moment Bryan Rust converted Jake Guentzel’s pass and beat Braden Holtby, not quite at the midway point of the game, the feeling was just too familiar. If you’re from here, you know it. If you’ve lived here, say, a decade or more, you know it. The sun will no longer rise. The rain won’t stop. The wash-rinse-repeat of the Capitals’ mere existence settled into Verizon Center, from the seats along the glass up to the 400 level.
“The last two games we played great,” Backstrom said. “But it doesn’t really mean anything right now.”
Each missed opportunity felt like tiny slices from an X-ACTO knife. No single cut killed. But power plays came and went without a goal. Ovechkin had a shot from the slot bounce off the shaft of his stick. Backstrom, cutting across the crease, hitting the outside of the post. A call that Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury — “The best player in the series,” Orpik said — had a puck covered when he didn’t, the whistle killing a Dmitry Orlov chance. By the end of the third, it all died kind of quietly, but for the boos.
How in the world can Ovechkin, who was on the ice for both Pittsburgh goals and made a poor attempt to clear on the second, continue to have faith that any of this will change?
“I don’t know,” he said, almost inaudibly. “We’re trying. Again,” and he sighed deeply. “Uh, we try to do our best.”
Is this, by now, their best? It’s worth pointing out that Ovechkin has more realistic chances to — let’s not even say win a Stanley Cup — get past the second round behind him than he does ahead. But there’s more. He will be 32 headed into next season, and it’s fair to say that this was almost certainly the last Capitals team on which he is the centerpiece. That he was dropped to the third line against the Penguins wasn’t an anomaly, a move made just to spark this group from a 3-1 deficit in the series. That was, to be sure, a glimpse of the future, however fast it comes.
That’s not a particularly consoling thought. But where could you possibly find one now? These Capitals are no longer on the rise. Rather, they had arrived — back-to-back Presidents’ Trophies, solid goaltending, depth on the blue line, still dangerous on the power play, all of it.
Turns out where that got them was to the same old place. The second round. Game 7. Home ice. The Penguins.
Pull the covers back over your face. Get back in that ball. And don’t set the alarm. When you wake up, eventually, it’ll all be the same as it ever was.