Actually, before we get back to that question, let me be upfront with you: I’m a Caps fan, but i’m not going to lie to you and tell you that I was there from the beginning (of this season). Because I wasn’t. In fact, I didn’t watch a single regular season game played by the Capitals this year. Unlike 99.2% of the DC sports fans who’ll be reveling in tonight’s victory, i’ll be truthful about that fact.
Here’s even more of the truth: I first fell in love with the Capitals back in 1988, when one of my dad’s business partners gave my dad three super-sweet tickets — center ice, only a few rows from the glass — to a mid-December Capitals game against the Winnipeg Jets (the ORIGINAL Winnipeg Jets that eventually moved to Phoenix and became the Coyotes), back at the old Capital Center (yup, even back before it became USAir Arena).
As an impressionable seven-year old, after attending said game, I started rooted for this team since the days when Rod Langway — the Secretary of Defense himself — was the Captain of this team, John Druce led the team to the first of its three appearances in the Conference Finals in the history of this franchise, and Dale Hunter nearly ended the career of Pierre Turgeon after cheap-shotting him after the latter scored a Game 6 of the 1993 Patrick Division Semifinals.
But about a decade ago, after close to 20 years of being a diehard fan, the Caps slowly moved down to a 4th place ranking in my hierarchy of rooting for the professional sports teams in my home town of Washington, D.C..
It wasn’t because the Caps started losing, either; quite the contrary, actually — I still rooted for this team even in the brutal Glen Hanlon years. Rather, it happened right around when Bruce Boudreau turned this Capitals team into a regular season juggernaut, as a result of my disdain for all the fair-weather fans who jumped aboard the Caps bandwagon and started hogging up all the seats that myself and the long-time Caps fans used to occupy.
I fully recognize that DC is a notoriously fickle sports town, with sports fans coming out of the proverbial woodwork only when the local teams are winning. But I can’t describe how much I loathe seeing all these 15-minutes-ago fans brag about going to games at the Capital One Arena, and posting “#RockTheRed” all over their social media outlets of choice, even though if you asked them about the history of this team, 99% of them probably think Dino Ciccarelli was a high-end Italian chef, and Joe Juneau was a tour guide in Alaska.
So while the Johnny-come-lately Caps fans will celebrate the fact that they saw the biggest win in their two-week history of following this team, they’ll never understand just how much last night’s win truly means. That’s because it’s us old-timers have had to live with the fact that Pittsburgh Penguins have been the neighborhood bully that we just can’t stop from beating us up and taking our lunch money, year after year after year. The aforementioned here-today, gone-tomorrow Caps fans have no idea what it feels like to be continually humiliated by the Penguins for the better part of the last 25 years. They have no idea that in an 11-season span between 1990 and 2000, the Washington Capitals made the playoffs nine times, and were eliminated by the Penguins in six of those nine playoff appearances. They know nothing about the fact that, alongside Boudreau, three other men who served as the head coach of this team — Bryan Murray, Jim Schoenfeld, and Ron Wilson — lost their jobs, in large part, because they couldn’t get past the Penguins in the playoffs.
To borrow a line from Pedro Martinez: they never felt like all that was left for us Caps fans was to tip our hats and call the Penguins our daddy.
Deep down, every single Caps fan — whether you started rooting for this team in the 1990’s, or whether you started rooting for this team 90 minutes ago — hoped they would win Game 6 yesterday evening, but couldn’t possibly have a modicum of confidence in that hope, considering DC sports teams entering a deciding game that would take them to the conference finals were 0-13 since 1992. The Penguins weren’t the team carrying around a five-hundred-thousand-pound gorilla named “cursed playoff history” every single time they made it to the postseason (like Washington did).
The long-time (and real) Caps fans were well aware of the horrors inflicted by the guys in those grotesque black and yellow sweaters, whether it was at the hands of Mario Lemeiux, Jaromir Jagr, that entitled and loathsome diva Sidney Crosby (and his perpetual pubic facial hair), or Petr Nedved scoring the game-winning goal for Pittsburgh in the 4th overtime in Game 4 of a 1996 playoff game against the Capitals, which remains the third-longest playoff game in NHL history (I stayed up until some ungodly hour of the night listening to that game on the radio, only because my parents made me turn off the TV and go to bed).
Which brings us back to last night.
Last night was far from the same tragic fate that us DC sports fans have been subjected to, for the past 26 years.
Last night, it was the Capitals who brought the fight, and played with their backs against the wall, like they were the team playing in an elimination game (although, it might as well have been, because God only knows what would’ve happened if we had to endure a Game 7 against Pittsburgh yet again).
Last night, it was the Capitals who managed to take the first lead of the game, thanks to an otherwise benign shot on goal by Alex Chiasson actually slipping behind Penguins goaltender Matt Murray.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 8, 2018
Last night, it was the Capitals who weathered a late-second and early-third period surge by the Penguins, after allowing a fluke goal, and still held steady.
Last night, it was the Capitals who watched a one-timer by Pittsburgh’s Tom Kuhnhackl — who had the feel of another “random DC sports team killer” — get past Braden Holtby in overtime, only to clang off the left goalpost.
Last night, it was the Capitals who forced a turnover by their opponent, got the puck in the hands of the best player on the team (Alex Ovechkin), and watched him set up his linemate (Evgeny Kuznetsov) for a breakaway game-winning goal.
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) May 8, 2018
Last night, the Washington Capitals, Alexander Ovechkin, Barry Trotz, and a large swath of the sports fans in this great city, finally exorcised some demons.
I don’t know if this team will make it to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1998. If i’m being honest, I don’t think this team has that great of a shot of beating the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have been the best team in the NHL all season long, and have the look of a team that will be hoisting the Cup above their collective heads about a month from now.
Yet, for this brief moment in time, the Washington, D.C. sports scene is as elated as its been in decades. For this brief moment in time, Washington, D.C. isn’t the most depressing professional sports town in America. Even if it’s just for this brief moment in time, you’ve NEVER seen this much joy from the DC sports fan collective on social media — comprising both the OG’s and the fair-weather flock — since social media even came into existence.
And to that DC sports fan who’s comfortably sitting in a particular seat on the Caps bandwagon, because they decided this year that they’ll suddenly be a Caps fan, and now has the privilege of scoring a few awesome seats to playoff hockey at the Capital One Arena: you should still join in the celebration of this monumental (no pun intended) series victory.
But, kindly move your ass out of my seat on the bandwagon while doing so. Because I purchased that spot 30 years ago — using the pain of early playoff exits spanning multiple DECADES as my payment method — and after last night, I want my seat on this bandwagon back.