Hello, Stanley: The Washington Capitals Are Eastern Conference Champions

By | May 24, 2018
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If I told you that at DC sports team is playing in a postseason game that doubles as the most important sporting even for any professional sports team in our nation’s capital, you’d instinctively — and correctly — tell me that there’s a 99.99% chance that something bad is going to happen.

But last night, Lightning struck — yes, pun intended — and that that 0.01 chance happened.

Last night, they fucking did it.

The Washington Capitals are going to the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals, thanks to their 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the drought of a pro sports team from the nation’s capital failing to make the league championship game is finally over.

It’s been two decades since the Capitals last played in the Stanley Cup. There are kids who are old enough to drive, vote, and go to college, who weren’t alive the last time the Capitals did so. And sadly enough, those kids never saw any other DC sports team advance past the second round of their sport’s playoffs.

The Washington Wizards? 0-2 in their last two trips to the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Washington Nationals? They find cruel and unusual ways to lose in the National League Division Series. The Washington Redskins? HAH, don’t get me started. They need an exorcism — or just a brand new owner — before they can legitimately dream of going to a Super Bowl.

Usually, the moments where we see scenes like this in our nation’s capital are few and far between:

There’s a reason the Capitals have the biggest bandwagon of any DC sports team; it’s because they’re the one team we thought would have a chance to do exactly what they did last night.

True to form, the Capitals put their fans through that rollercoaster of emotions, to which we’ve become very accustomed. After blowing the doors off the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first two games, they dropped three straight. They dropped both games at home, and for a team that was supposed to be “invincible” on the road in this postseason, they dropped a third game on the road as well.

These types of series usually end with a gut-wrenching thud for DC sports fans. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if the Caps blew Game 6 at home, or choked in Game 7. We have years — no, make that decades — of experience in that aspect.

But last night, years of tortured history was forgiven and forgotten.

Last night, they fucking did it.

What makes this even more incredible was the fact that Washington wasn’t “supposed” to win this series. This was Tampa Bay’s third appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals in four years; meanwhile, the last time the Capitals appeared in the conference finals, Bill Clinton was still President, you had to use your home phone line to connect to the internet, and Titanic was the #1 film in box offices.

Entering the Eastern Conference Finals, Washington was easily the underdog. The Lightning scored more goals per game than the Caps, allowed fewer goals per game than the Caps, and were more successful on the Power Play than the Caps. Tampa bay even took two of the three regular season meetings between the two teams. Leading up to this series, Tampa Bay allowed the fewest scoring chances per 60 minutes of any team in the playoffs. Their goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, was tied for the most shutouts registered by any goalie in the regular season. The Lightning was the rare team with more youth, experience, firepower, and bona fide “stars” than the Caps.

Plus, the Caps had a very viable excuse readily available, in terms of coming into Game 1 on something of a “hangover” form their emotional win over Pittsburgh. I personally thought they’d be emotionally spent after defeating their longtime tormentors from Pittsburgh.

And yet, last night, when it was all said and done, none of that mattered.

Last night, they fucking did it.

If you take a step back and really look at the big picture that is this run by the Washington Capitals, it almost seems surreal.

It’s the heavily-favored Lightning who entered this serious and suddenly found themselves playing hesitantly, and in their words, “slow.” It was the Lightning who were mystified that their highly-successful regular season game plan suddenly went bone dry in critical moments during this series. It was the Vasilevskiy, the Lightning goaltender, who was getting beat by relatively benign shots early in the series. It was the Lightning who were publicly declaring the need for individual gut checks after facing a 0-2 hole. It was the Lightning who failed to score a single point for the last 159 minutes and 27 seconds of the series.

For all the stars we’ve touted on the Capitals roster, Washington beat a team with three players in the top 10 in scoring this year (Pittsburgh), then beat another team with two players in the top 10 (Tampa Bay) as well. Four of those five guys scored more points than Alexander Ovechkin this year.

Speaking of Ovechkin: after years of conversations about whether the team should trade the Russian scoring savant, which took place every time the Capitals suffered an early exit from the playoffs, Ovechkin went from the guy who’d perennially go AWOL in the postseason to the leader in the clubhouse for the Conn Smythe trophy.

It took Ovechkin exactly 62 seconds into the game last night to remind everyone why he’s still the best pure goal scorer in the NHL. He launched a Patriot missile from the left face off circle that Vasilevskiy only noticed once it whizzed over his shoulder, and opened the scoring flood gates that took place.

Gone is the narrative that Ovechkin had a 3-7 record (prior to last night) in Game 7’s in the playoffs, the worst record of any NHL player in history to play in that many Game 7’s. If he adds a Stanley Cup to his name, Ovechkin will not only cement his legacy as one of the greatest hockey players of all time, but maybe the greatest DC sports athlete of all time.

But while Ovechkin is the Captain, he’s leading a squad with a “professionally care-free” spirit, the likes of which we haven’t seen from any DC sports team in years, if not decades. As others have said: they just don’t seem to be as encumbered with the “here we go again” 800lb-gorilla of past playoff failures.

The Capitals went down 0-2 to Columbus, then took four straight. The Capitals lost Game 1 against Pittsburgh in gut-wrenching fashion at home, then beat the Penguins four of the next five games. The Capitals blew a 2-0 lead to the Lightning by losing three straight games (including the always critical Game 5), only to decisively win Game 6 at home and then win Game 7 on the ice of the best team in the Eastern Conference.

Game 7’s are the birthplaces of unlikely playoff heroes, and the Caps had one of their most unlikely players step up in Andre Burakovsky. Burakovsky has been the resident whipping boy for Caps fans to this season; the highly-talented winger’s development has been stifled mostly on account of all the criticisms levied upon him are getting to his head. It got to the point where Burakovsky publicly admitted that he’d consider seeking the help of a sports psychologist in the offseason. But after what he did last night, maybe he should cancel any upcoming appointments with a shrink that he might have had on the books.

Burakovsky’s performance last night was symbolic of the Caps entire postseason run: every time it seemed like the Capitals were down for the count, they got up off the canvas, kept swinging, and kept advancing towards their goal of getting to the Stanley Cup.

And last night, they fucking did it.

At least for this brief moment, the Capitals were able to silence many of the media talking heads who chortled at the annual failure of DC sports teams in the postseason.

For what it’s worth, 11 of 13 of ESPN’s NHL analysts — including local boy Greg Wyshynski — picked Tampa Bay to win this series.

While that cantankerous hypocrite Michael Wilbon will likely try to find ways to discount the magnitude of the Capitals’ victory, he couldn’t stop boasting about the “Ning” before and during the series. You could practically hear the NHL’s talking heads on television — including NBCSN’s resident hockey asshat Mike Milbury, who makes no apologies for his anti-Capitals bias and his unfettered pro-Canada bias and deification of that nancy-boy Sidney Crosby — gnashing their teeth while (begrudgingly) praising the Capitals for their efforts.

Of the four NHL writers polled yesterday afternoon, before the game took place, all four picked Tampa Bay to win, because of how much home ice advantage mattered in Game 7, and because of the fact that the Capitals were 4-11 (heading into last night) all time in Game 7’s — the worst such record of any team in the NHL.

Gone are such narratives this morning. The sports world, inside and outside of DC, finally had to come to terms with just what the Washington Capitals accomplished.

Last night, they fucking did it.

And as T.J. Oshie would have you know: they’re not done yet.

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