A memorial service will be held for the Troll of Washington this week. The exact site, whether the Memorial, 14th Street, Wilson or Key Bridge, has not yet been determined. The late but not lamented grouch has been sighted at all those places for 20 years, hiding from view so no one will realize that, despite all those nasty insults he yells at the Capitals, Nationals, Wizards and Redskins, he’s basically pathetic.
No one is expected to attend. As with all trolls, his epitaph should be: ignore. Like a hurricane, the D.C. Troll finally has blown himself out and dies unmourned.
Exactly a year ago, last May 9, I introduced our resident symbolic Troll, writing that he was on the ropes, but that the Capitals or Wizards had to knock him out. They didn’t. Oh, man, did they not. Neither did the Nats last October. The cycle of futility continued through winter and into spring.
Finally, the D.C. Troll’s reason for being was extinguished at 10 p.m. Monday. He was pronounced dead when the Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov scored in overtime on Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray and eliminated the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions. Cause of death: poisoned by bile, his own.
No longer can he howl that Washington’s major pro sports teams cannot even reach the semifinals — the final four — in their sports. That streak reached 0-for-71 team seasons since the Capitals went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998. It’s fitting that the Caps ended this streak because their postseason record (which will not be repeated here) has created a paradise for Trolls in training since 1985.
Now, a new era begins for Washington’s pro teams. How well can the freed-up Capitals play now that they have slain their Penguins hex? In the Caps’ past 10 postseasons in the Ovechkin-Backstrom era, we have never seen this team play an entire series in which it didn’t appear asphyxiated by pressure. Now, we can hope that series is here against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals.
D.C.’s teams cannot erase their pasts, much as many fans would love to say that one win somehow brings amnesia concerning innumerable playoff malfeasances.
But the past can be recast in the context of an altered present. We all get to improve, try again and, sometimes, rise to our full height after being knocked to our lowest point. Few teams exemplify this better than the current Caps. We might need to think back seven months to give full credit for their incredible trip.
“The Caps are doomed,” I wrote then in a chat. “I hope I’m wrong, but . . . I will be amazed if [they find] some perfect chemistry and make a mark. Their last 30 years is the saddest ongoing story I have ever covered in any sport, including teams in other towns. . . . [Part of what makes it sad is] . . . the Caps didn’t do much wrong, as people or performers, except lose or choke an incredible number of times over parts of four decades.”
How can a team recover emotionally and psychologically in the very next season after blowing its best chances to win the Stanley Cup in back-to-back seasons as Presidents’ Trophy winners? Who could be that resilient, that ticked off, especially after losing five front-line players in the offseason? Of all teams in all sports, who would seriously pick the Caps for such a task?
That’s a huge part of what made Monday night so gratifying. It was the Caps. This was the season in which they shouldn’t, couldn’t and wouldn’t — but they did.
Former Nats outfielder Jayson Werth told his Washington teammates many times that, when he played in Philadelphia, the “fourth-best Phillies team” on which he played won the World Series — the best chemistry, blend and luck, not best talent.
Just as many Washington athletes have, in my opinion, felt a citywide fan pall and been somewhat unsettled or undermined by it — not a lot, but some, enough to make a nasty little difference — we might now see the opposite effect. Nothing huge, but enough to make a nice little difference.
In recent years, players from all four D.C. teams have attended each other’s games and worn their gear. It’s been a conscious bonding effort to “get over the hump,” as Nats Manager Dave Martinez underlined this spring by having coaches ride camels into training camp on a Wednesday (hump day). And it’s the reason Martinez wore Caps gear before the last two Pens games.
It’s pure Pollyanna to believe that Washington now will be flooded with champions. But anyone who doesn’t think that something has changed, that some weight has been shifted or shed to make the climb easier, isn’t sensing the tone of the teams — especially the Capitals and perhaps Nationals — or the town.
How much will Alex Ovechkin’s play be helped against Tampa Bay now that he has beaten Sidney Crosby head-to-head in a game in which his assist set up the series-winning goal? If there should be a Game 7, will we see the old and slightly discombobulated too-tight Ovi who’d snap his stick on mistimed slap shots?
Some Troll interns will, no doubt, remind us that no local professional team in a major sport has won a championship since 1992, a streak of 1 for 91. A respectful nod here to D.C. United, whose beautiful new soccer stadium on the Southwest Waterfront is almost finished, for its MLS titles, the most recent a decade ago. But back then, it just wasn’t the same “major” deal. History willing, maybe it will be.
What Washington has endured is different, and in its way, feels meaner than title droughts in other cities. Just as D.C. has exploded in the past 20 years, with entire new sections of town materializing or transforming — and with widely different demography and identities — the town’s teams have not just been titleless but, when it matters most, irrelevant to the national conversation. D.C. teams couldn’t even get far enough to play for the right to play for the right to a title.
That’s over. As the Post sports section headline put it after the Caps beat the Pens, “Time to move on.”
No one knows exactly where or how often D.C. teams will advance. But wherever it is, whatever bridges they must cross, there won’t be any D.C. Troll lurking underneath, sneering, “You can’t do it. You never do it. You’re dead.”
Now, instead, he’s dead. Rest in peace. Or, on second thought, don’t.
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