The official time of death yesterday, for what was billed as the most important night in D.C. sports in the last quarter century, was 9:38pm.
That’s when Patric Hornqvist caught the entire Washington Capitals team lollygagging in their own zone — hey, it’s not like it was Game 7 of a playoff series or something, where you may want to play with some urgency — and managed to sneak an otherwise benign backhand shot past two Washington defensemen, and then Braden Holtby, to put the Pittsburgh Penguins up 2-0 early in the third period.
From there, you knew what was coming. You could see it, hear it, and palpably feel it coming: yet another epic failure by a professional sports teams representing Washington, D.C..
All day yesterday, the entire “DMV” — at almost every walk of life — was buzzing. Washington, D.C., being the only major American city with a team in the NBA and NHL playoffs, was the center of the American sports universe. Capitals-Penguins, Game 7. Wizards-Celtics, Game 5. Hell, even the Nationals were playing in perhaps their biggest rivalry game of the year, against the Baltimore Orioles.
And it ended in the same manner that every single other highly-anticipated sporting event in this area tends to end: in disastrously brutal heartbreak.
The Capitals were playing in a “loser leaves town” playoff game — and very likely in the last season of this team’s “championship window” as presently constructed — and were kind enough to save their worst performance of the series for yesterday evening. The Wizards were playing in the decisive Game 5 — of which the winner wins the series at an 80%+ clip — and flat-out didn’t show up to the TD Garden arena.
But when it starts raining on D.C. sports, it doesn’t pour; rather, it turns into a deluge of Biblical proportions. The evening ended up being a perfect storm of everything that has tormented D.C. sports fans for the past two decades:
- A Washington, D.C. sports team failing to defeat one of it’s hated rivals in a primetime game, even when the entire world believes they’re the better team that should win? Check. Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption program — two legendary sports journalists who are PLENTY familiar with the cursed history of this city — picked the Capitals to win Game 7. That flip-flopping ass hat Barry Melrose at ESPN changed his pick to Washington after originally picking Pittsburgh to win the series. Most people believed that the Penguins might have the best player in the world on their team, but the Capitals were too tough, too deep, and too experienced to lose. Instead, Washington has now lost NINE of its last 10 playoff series against the Penguins since 1990.
- The barely-over-replacement-level goalie suddenly turning into some goaltending deity that stonewalls the Capitals? Check. Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was ranked outside the top 40 goaltenders during the regular season in Goals Against Average and only had one shutout all season long, but managed to stop all 29 of the Capitals shots last night, shutting out the highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference.
- The totally random and mostly unheralded player playing out of his mind against the Wizards, and putting up a career-best performance? Check. Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley was averaging 11 points per game in the series against Washington, with a field goal percentage lower than 34%. But last night? Bradley put up 29 points — including 25 points in the first half, which is something that prodigious scorers like Stephen Curry or Russell Westbrook or Carmelo Anthony have never accomplished in the playoffs — shooting over 63% from the field. You know how everyone thought there might be a conspiracy that Markieff Morris may have had his twin brother Marcus play for him? It looked like Russell Westbrook was secretly playing in place of Avery Bradley last night.
- Shots that would go in for the Capitals, in bunches, if the game was a forgettable and meaningless affair in mid-January, but can’t find the back of the net in May? Check. The Capitals have scored over 500 goals over the last two regular seasons, but got shut out for the second time in their past three Game 7’s. Someone tweeted that it’s like there’s an invisible force field around the net when the Capitals play in Game 7, and they couldn’t have been any more accurate. How else do you explain Daniel Winnik missing the net on a breakaway, Alexander Ovechkin missing on a devastating one-timer in point-blank range, and T.J. Oshie missing a shot right on the doorstep of the goal (among a few other opportunities i’m likely forgetting)? When a dumbfounded Michael “Doc” Emrick of NBC Sports exclaimed: “How are these pucks not going in for the Capitals?!?” at the end of the second period, we all just knowingly shrugged our shoulders at these all-too-familiar circumstances.
- One of D.C.’s superstars failing to perform when the national spotlight was on them? Check. You can take your pick between Ovechkin (expect the narrative around his future in this city to get VERY contentious this summer), John Wall (who started out the game going 1 for 9 and just couldn’t get any of his shots to fall all until the game was laughably out of hand), or even Stephen Strasburg (whose five runs — in only five innings — was the most runs he’s allowed this season to date).
The more things might change, as far as the D.C. sports landscape, the more they stay the same. The Penguins entered last night’s game with a 5-0 record in Game 7’s played on the road; they’re now 6-0. The Penguins entered the game with a 3-0 record in Game 7’s against the Capitals; they’re now 4-0. Washington entered the game with a 3-7 record in Game 7’s; they’re now 3-8. Barry Trotz and Alexander Ovechkin have never advanced past their conference semifinals at any point in their respective careers, and they still haven’t. The Wizards have lost all three of their Game 5 appearances in the Eastern Conference Semifinals in the John Wall era.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the feeling of “hope” is defined as the desire to want something to happen, or to be true. All year long, us fans in D.C. hoped the Washington Capitals would finally fulfill the promise of being the best team in the Eastern Conference. We hoped the Washington Wizards would advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, and give the Cleveland Cavaliers all the hell they could handle, and then some.
But the concept of “insanity,” as defined by Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results. How many times have we gone through what we did yesterday: getting amped up for a big primetime game, hoping to savor the thrill of victory by the end of the evening, only to suffer the agony of defeat time and time again?
It has now been 6,936 days since one of the four major sports teams in the Washington, D.C. area clinched a spot in their respective conference finals (hat tip to Grant Paulsen for that stat). I have kids interviewing for internship positions in my office who were born after that event took place (back on May 15th, 1998). Given that the Capitals and Nationals are looking at a window of contention that’s going to close in the very near future, the Washington Redskins continue their perennial state of total dysfunction, and Ernie Grunfeld still (mis-)manages the roster for the Wizards, who knows just how long that drought will continue.
This city doesn’t need another big-name head coach. This city doesn’t need another high priced free agent acquisition. This city doesn’t need more transcendent young superstars. This city — or, at least its sports teams — needs a damn exorcism.
Being a D.C. sports fan is a purgatory that even Sisyphus would have pity for. Last night was just more proof of that: when we think we’ve finally pushed the boulder up to the top of the mountain, it comes barreling right back down on us, smashing our hopes along the way.
But, deep down, we all know what we’ll spend the next few months doing, after the sting of this most recent defeat wears off: convincing ourselves to push that “championship hopes” boulder right back up the hill again, hoping that the next time around, everything will be different.