While this quote might be from Napoleon Bonaparte, considered by many to be the greatest military leader in human history, I think it sums up the the better part of the last three decades of DC sports fandom succinctly yet superbly:
“Victory belongs to the most persevering.”
Keep that quote in your head, when reading the following anthology of the postseason history of the Washington Capitals (warning: if you’re a Caps fan with a sensitive stomach, you may want to skip this section entirely):
- Blowing a 2-0 series lead in the opening round of the 1987 NHL Playoffs against the New York Islanders
- Blowing a 2-1 series lead in The Prince of Wales SemiFinals against the (lower-seeded) New York Rangers in 1986
- Blowing a 3-1 series lead in the opening round of the 1987 NHL Playoffs against the Islanders, including Game 7, at home, in The Easter Epic
- Losing Game 7 of the The Prince of Wales SemiFinals against the (lower-seeded) New Jersey Devils in 1988
- Losing to the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in the opening round of the 1989 NHL playoffs (the Caps were effectively a #2 seed that got beat by the “#7 seed” Flyers)
- Getting swept by the Boston Bruins in our first trip to the Conference Finals in 1990
- Taking Game 1, then losing four straight against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the The Prince of Wales SemiFinals in 1991
- Blowing a 3-1 series lead in the opening round of the 1992 NHL playoffs against the Penguins, losing Game 7 at home
- Finally getting past the Pittsburgh Penguins, only to get stomped by the Rangers in the Eastern Conference SemiFinals in 1994
- Blowing a 3-1 series lead in the opening round of the 1995 NHL playoffs against the Penguins
- Blowing a 2-0 series lead in the opening round of the 1996 NHL playoffs against the Penguins (the Caps lost four straight)
- Making a breakthrough run to the Stanley Cup as a #4 seed in 1998, only to get thoroughly outplayed, outclassed, and embarrassed (and swept) by the Detroit Red Wings
- Entering the 2000 playoffs as the #2 seed, only to go down 3-0 (and lose 4-1) to the #7-seed Penguins in the opening round
- Entering the 2001 playoffs as the #3 seed, only to lose in six games to the #6-seed Penguins in the opening round
- Entering the 2003 playoffs as the #6 seed, stealing the first two games of the opening round against the #3-seeded Tampa Bay Lightning, only to lose the next four straight
- Returning to the playoffs in 2008 (as the #3 seed), fighting back from a 3-1 deficit against the Flyers, only to lose Game 7 at home (Joffrey Lupul strikes in overtime)
- Losing Game 7 of the Eastern Conference SemiFinals, at home, against the (lower-seeded) Penguins in 2009 (Semyon Varlamov allowing four goals in under 23 minutes leading to a 6-2 loss)
- Entering the 2010 playoffs with the best record in the NHL, only to blow a 3-1 series lead against the #8-seeded Montreal Canadiens (no thanks to Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak, who remains persona non-grata in this city)
- Entering the 2011 playoffs with the best record in the NHL, only to get swept (in embarrassing fashion) in the Eastern Conference SemiFinals against Tampa Bay
- Entering the 2012 playoffs as the #7 seed, taking the #1-seed Rangers to seven games in Eastern Conference SemiFinals, only to lose Game 7
- Entering the 2013 playoffs as the #3 seed, only to blow a 3-2 lead against the 6th-seeded Rangers, capped off by Braden Holtby getting lit up in a 5-0 loss in Game 7 (at home)
- Blowing a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference SemiFinals against the Rangers in 2015 (Derek Stepan’s game-winning goal in overtime of Game 7)
- Entering the 2016 playoffs with the best record in the NHL, taking Game 1 of the Eastern Conference SemiFinals against the Penguins (thanks to T.J. Oshie’s hat trick), only to lose four of the next five games
- Entering the 2017 playoffs with the best record in the NHL, fighting back from a 3-1 series deficit to the Penguins, only to lose Game 7 at home (in a 2-0 shutout courtesy of Marc-Andre Fleury; oh, the irony).
If that list doesn’t make you want to chug a liter of cheap motel-strength bleach, I don’t know what will.
But yesterday, with one two-hour trip spanning just over one mile down Constitution Avenue, we erased every single one of those bad memories.
To put it more crudely: None of those entries are worth a flying fuck anymore, because the Washington Capitals are the winners of the Stanley Cup, and the champions of the world.
Make no mistake: this championship was about Alexander Ovechkin cementing his status as one of the greatest players in the history of the National Hockey League. It was about Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom fulfilling the promise of bringing a Cup to this title-starved city of the most deserving sports fans in the United States.
It was about Braden Holtby erasing years of questions and doubts, and cementing his status in DC sports history with a play that should unquestionably be mentioned right up there with with John Riggins running “70 Chip” in Super Bowl XVII and and Darrell Green’s punt return against the Chicago Bears in the 1987-1988 NFC Semifinals as the greatest moments in DC sports history.
It was about stars like Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie coming up huge when the lights shined their very brightest, role players like role players like Lars Eller, Brett Connolly, and Jay Beagle serving as those invaluable “glue guys,” and previously unheralded players like Jakub Vrana and Devante Smith-Pelly etching their names in this city’s sports lore.
It was about a team that stared squarely at the demons of playoff failures past — against Columbus (blowing their first two games at home), Pittsburgh (the gut-punch third period that led to the Game 1 loss), Tampa Bay (going up 2-0 only to find themselves down 3-2), and even Las Vegas (getting hosed by the refs in Game 1 en route to losing the opener of the Stanley Cup Finals) — and spit in the face of those demons.
And yet — fully acknowledging this might be the the irrationally passionate sports fan in me talking — I feel like this win was just as much for and about the true D.C. sports fans, as it was about the players themselves.
We saw the commercial of all the hockey greats of my/our generation — Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Patrick Roy, Ray Borque, Martin Brodeur, and even one-time Caps player Sergei Federov, among others (I refuse to mention those two nancy-boys from Pittsburgh at the beginning of the commercial) — spelling out their last names, symbolizing how they’ll forever be etched in history on Lord Stanley’s Cup.
And as hyperbolic, if not ridiculous, as this might sound, there was a part of me that felt like every single one of us long-suffering DC sports fans would have their names etched on the Cup as well — at least symbolically.
How many years of playoff failures (the Caps and the Nationals), teetering between terrible and good-but-not-good-enough (the Wizards), and the hybrid of kleptocracy and incompetence (the Redskins) have we had to suffer since the early 1990’s? Year after year, heartbreak after heartbreak, gut-punch after gut-punch, we suffered. And though we may have wavered, questioning if we have the most cursed sports city in the nation, we never stopped believing.
We packed Capital One Arena — thanks to local financial titan Capital One graciously hosting viewing parties at their namesake arena — when the Caps were on the road in the playoffs. We packed 7th and F streets downtown with crowds the sizes of which Donald Trump could only dream, just to watch the games on the big screens outside the Arena. I happened to have a series of “all hands” meetings at my work during the week of the Stanley Cup Finals, and saw countless people ignoring the executives speaking up front, and instead peering into their computers and phones looking at stories of and highlights from the Caps.
Every time the Caps did well, we collectively reacted like Keelan Moxley (maybe the most popular DC sports fan in DC right now).
— Zac (@DCzWall) June 5, 2018
There were fathers and sons literally choking up and shedding tears together.
At 8 pm I called my son to talk Caps as we have for yrs. "I'm wearing my #19."
At 2 am, he called: "June 7 is the same date Bullets won in '78."
I said, "DC hadn't won a title in 33 yrs. I was 30. You're 31."
We each knew what the other felt. One more good bond. That's sports.
— Thomas Boswell (@ThomasBoswellWP) June 8, 2018
We saw a Championship parade to celebrate this team that will forever set the bar for how a city should celebrate it’s team.
— NBC4 Sports (@NBC4Sports) June 12, 2018
(Side note: as many others have said, if a championship win by the Capitals can ignite the city in this manner, just imagine how this city’s citizens and fans would react to a Super Bowl win by the Redskins; they’ll legitimately have to shut down the city).
I openly admitted that the Caps (previously) fell to the bottom of my personal “DC sports team hierarchy” only because of all the fair-weather fans that jumped aboard this team’s bandwagon in recent years, without fully having to endure most of heartbreaks of years past.
But the scenes we saw last week, and the reaction — and the prolonged celebrations — from the fans this week, is the type of stuff that makes you fall in love with a team and a city all over again.
To me, nothing says more about this Capitals team than the fact that 21 of 23 players on the playoff roster tallied at least one point in the postseason, from Ovechkin’s franchise-record 15 goals to reserve defenseman Jakub Jerabek tallying an assist in Game 2 of the Columbus series.
Combined with the adoring crowds — inside and outside Capital One Arena, often in opposing stadiums, and the hundreds of thousands who attended the Championship parade — the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup, but this championship was very much by the people, for the people, and of the people of Washington, D.C..