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Despair (and Hope) in CapsTown

April 30, 2010

Wednesday night, the Washington Capitals suffered a crushing loss in game seven in their opening round playoff series against the Montreal Canadiens.  As the #1 overall seed in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps were heavily favored in this series, and were thought of as serious Cup contenders.  But after taking a 3-1 series lead over the Canadiens, the Caps lost the final three games of the series and have been eliminated.  And the Washington area does not seem to be taking the loss well.

I’ve seen this before.  I’ve seen the hopes of a title starved city get crushed when a championship quality team and their star player come up short.  And it isn’t pretty when it happens.

In the past two years, Washington has fallen in love with the Capitals, and the city has been transformed into CapsTown. Throughout my time here, I’ve never seen people get behind a team like they have with the Caps over the past two seasons. 

Back in 1998, when the Caps were in the Stanley Cup Finals, it seemed like there prevailing mood in the city was apathy.  Sure, hardcore fans were excited, and I’m sure that people thought it would have been nice for the city to win a title.  But for the most part, the city didn’t seem to be all that excited about the team.  It was certainly far from the Caps Mania that we have here now.  In 2010, the Verizon Center is packed for every game, and anywhere you look on the streets, you can see people “Rocking the Red.”

What changed?

Alex Ovechkin has been a big part of it.  It’s always exciting for a sports fan knowing that your team has a player who might be the best in the game.  Caps fans know that Ovechkin’s presence alone should give them a shot at winning every time out.  And not only is Ovechkin talented, but he also has a dynamic personality that the fans can get behind.  Fans love to see passion, and Ovechkin typically delivers it, not only with his hard play, but how he crashes himself into the boards after he scores a goal.  That’s the type of behavior that makes a player beloved.

But it can’t be Ovechkin alone that has made DC into a hockey city.  The Caps have had good players before.  While Ovechkin might be the most talented, is his presence alone enough to make people go Caps crazy?

I think much of it has to do with the difference in the DC sports landscape between 1998 and now.  Back in 1998, Washington was only seven years removed from its most recent sports title.  And all of the local teams were doing fairly well at the time.  The Wizards were a playoff team, the Orioles (Yes, they’re from Baltimore, but since they were essentially Washington’s unofficial baseball team, I’m going to include them) had just made a run to the ALCS, and Redskins fans were high on their team, with no idea of the horrors that Daniel Snyder would soon inflict upon them. 

Twelve years later and the fans have gotten a bit desperate.  They are desperately craving a title in any sport, but most of the local teams don’t look to be in any shape to deliver.  Despite adding Donovan McNabb, the Redskins still look a long way off; the Nats and O’s have been hopeless for years; and the Gilbert Arenas-led Wizards are pretty much just a punchline these days.

That leaves the Capitals as the city’s one hope to win it all.  And they did not deliver.

In 2002, there was a similar feeling in Philadelphia.  It had been 19 years since Philly’s last title, and the fans were getting desperate.  While the Sixers had a nice run behind Allen Iverson the year before, it appeared like that team had peaked and wouldn’t win a title; the Flyers were a dysfunctional group who could make the playoffs, but couldn’t be seen as real contenders; and the Phillies hadn’t even made the playoffs in nine years.

Philadelphia’s shining hope was the Eagles.  Under coach Andy Reid, the team looked like it was on the verge of a championship.  They had a great core of players led by an emerging star in quarterback Donovan McNabb.  Back then, McNabb looked like he might be becoming the NFL’s best player, and the type of QB who could win them multiple Super Bowls.

Coming off a defeat in the NFC Championship game the year before, the 2002 Eagles – like the Caps – earned the top seed in the playoffs.  And like the Caps 3-1 series lead, the Eagles seemed ready to live up to expectations by winning their first playoff game, and taking a lead in the NFC Championship game against the Buccaneers.

And then, it fell apart.  Ronde Barber’s interception sealed an improbable NFC Championship loss and Philly’s title hopes were squashed yet again.  January 19, 2003: Black Sunday.  Perhaps the darkest day in Philadelphia sports history.  Certainly one of the worst days of my life.

After that, McNabb’s star never seemed quite as bright.  Sure, he had more chances, but could never get the Eagles to the ultimate goal.  And with each playoff defeat, the city of Philadelphia seemed to sour on McNabb a little bit.  The talk of “he can’t win the big one,” grew and grew, until this past offseason, many Eagles fans were glad to see him go, because they didn’t think the team would ever win the Super Bowl with him.

Will Ovechkin suffer the same fate? 

Not only have the Capitals fallen short of expectations the past two seasons, but Ovechkin’s Russian team also came up small in the Olympics.  Making things worse for him is that Sidney Crosby – typically considered to be his main competition for the “best player in hockey” title – has succeeded where Ovechkin failed, winning last year’s Stanley Cup, and helping Canada capture Olympic gold.

When a team continues to fall short of expectations, the star player inevitably starts to feel the fire.  The criticisms have already started: He’s too flashy.  He doesn’t have an extra gear for the playoffs.  He’s not a leader.  He doesn’t have it in him to carry the team to the title. 

It’s easy for Caps fans to get down on the team and its star.  Suffering a playoff upset leaves you with an empty feeling.  Caps fans will remember the game seven loss to the Canadiens for a long time.  They’ll probably replay the loss in their heads over and over again.  They’ll go over all the things that could have broken differently.  Watching the other local teams probably won’t help matters.  When the Nationals and Redskins fail, it will just be another reminder that the Capitals were the best chance they had.

But one thing they shouldn’t do is turn on Ovechkin.  There have been a lot of young athletes who failed a few times before winning a championship.  Even Michael Jordan was once thought of as a flashy player who didn’t necessarily have the substance to lead a team to a title.  So there’s still hope that Ovechkin can lead the team to a title.  Because like it or not, he’s probably the best hope Washington has. 

And the best thing about sports is, there’s always next year.  When the season starts up again in October, the Caps should have a strong, Cup contending team.  Maybe the team will learn from the loss, and use it as motivation.  Maybe it will help inspire them to finally win it all.  If that happens, this year’s playoff defeat will seem less like a failure and more like a misstep on the road to a title.

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