FanPost

On Washington sports, the Stanley Cup and a community united

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It literally hadn’t happened in my lifetime.

Washington’s four major professional sports teams hadn’t won a championship since 1992, more than five years before I was born, over a decade before I wrapped myself up in sports and all the absurdities that come from them. I’ve spent so much of my life watching grown men play these games and letting them affect my mood and wondering why.

I’m no longer wondering.

On June 7, 2018—exactly three months after my 21st birthday—the Washington Capitals won the Stanley Cup. They partied in Vegas, and thousands of fans partied in the city streets over 2,000 miles away.

Nothing unifies a community like sports. And this is a hard community to unify. People who live in D.C. and Maryland Virginia are all sort of in this "DMV" group together. There’s a large subgroup that claims somewhere else as home and roots for sports teams from another city. Washington is where this nation’s politics happen, and politics thrive on turning ideological differences into dissent. It’s easy to forget just how much we all share.

We’d all waited decades for this reminder.

*****

Not a lot of good has come from Washington sports since I’ve been alive. The Redskins have gone two decades without finding a franchise quarterback; they’ve become known more for an offensive name and a widely disliked owner than anything they’ve done on the field. The Wizards couldn’t win with three stars a decade ago, and they’re struggling to remain relevant with two stars now. I’ve followed the Nationals since their inaugural campaign, and I’ve seen losing seasons turn into winning seasons with disheartening endings, which is somehow worse.

But the Capitals have always provided a unique brand of heartbreak. For a decade, they were one of the most talented teams in the NHL, blessed with a generational superstar in Russian left wing Alex Ovechkin, and couldn’t make the most of it. From 2008-17, they won three Presidents Trophies and finished with over 100 points six times; six of those seasons ended in the second round of the playoffs, and the others were no better.

Every time a D.C. team encounters these postseason demons, all the demons from every other sport over the years return like it’s some sort of ghost party. The pressure of an entire city is hurled at players and coaches who, it can be forgotten, are human beings who think about these things, even if they try not to. This pressure has manifested itself in crazy, heartbreaking ways time and time again.

The adrenaline rush that postseason hockey brings is so much stronger than anything the regular season can provide that, once you’ve tasted even some postseason success, it’s hard not to view October through early April as merely a warmup. Everything good that’s happened to the Capitals in the regular season has been prematurely invalidated until they can back it up in the postseason. And for years, they couldn’t. Washington blew 3-1 leads, ran into hot goalies and could never beat the Pittsburgh Penguins. That stung the most, because Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby are the two best players of their generation, and that distinction always brings comparisons, and Crosby has won every single debate for 10 years because his teams found the success Ovechkin’s never could. Sure, success in hockey requires 19 players being at their best, but a 3-0 lead in Stanley Cups is a 3-0 lead in Stanley Cups.

Hockey occupies a weird place in the sporting community here. It’s the least popular of the four major sports, although its following is still considerable. But as a result, fewer people in the area have prior allegiances. Just about everyone who cares about hockey in Washington cares about the Caps. Every spring, there’s a boom in jersey sightings, and you’ll hear conversations about hockey in new places, and the crowds for games and watch parties get larger and rowdier.

This annual playoff bandwagon is simply everyone upping their investment a notch or two. People who didn’t care start to care. People who cared but didn’t watch every game make their games appointment viewing. And the die-hard fans lose their fucking minds no matter what.

After the final horn, tens of thousands of these people—from all these groups, and from all walks of life—celebrated as one. Washington had a champion again. Nothing else really mattered.

*****

I’m still not sure how this was the team that ended the drought. The Capitals took a step back, tying for the league’s sixth-best record after winning two straight Presidents Trophies. They were good but not dominant. Braden Holtby, named the league’s best goaltender in 2016, struggled all year and was benched in favor of Philipp Grubauer at the start of the playoff.

They lost their first two playoff games. At home. They switched goalies, returning to Holtby after a pair of overtime defeats. They took and relinquished the lead twice in Game 3, only for Lars Eller to score in double-overtime. Then they took off, winning the next three games against the Columbus Blue Jackets to advance to the second round.

Pittsburgh was next. Of course Pittsburgh was next.

In Game 1, the Caps took a 1-0 lead into the third period, and Ovechkin scored 28 seconds in to make it a two-goal game. But the Penguins got on the board just 2:31 later, then tied the game 2:21 after that, then took the lead 2:28 after that. The Caps were dead men walking for the final 12:12. It was 10 years summed up in 20 minutes.

But they won four of the next five to knock off Pittsburgh, at long last. Many Caps fans believed that if they ever got past the second round, they’d carry that momentum to a title. In drubbing the Tampa Bay Lightning twice on the road, it seemed like that was exactly the case. Then the Caps dropped two at home and lost Game 5 back in Tampa and were suddenly facing elimination. Somehow, this brought the best out of them. Holtby shut out the Lightning twice, and the team scored seven goals over the final two games. Washington advanced again.

That set up perhaps the most bonkers championship matchup I’ve ever seen in sports. The Caps—who in 44 seasons had encountered so much heartbreak with nothing to show for it—were pitted against an expansion team. The Vegas Golden Knights weren’t playing hockey last year, but their hot start to their first season never subsided. They were perhaps the craziest story in sports. To make things weirder, Vegas’ GM, George McPhee, spent over a decade in Washington and assembled a lot of the current Capitals team. The goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, was responsible for as many broken hearts as anyone during his time in Pittsburgh. And it was Nate Schmidt who had the honor of playing in the Stanley Cup final against the team that didn’t protect him.

Vegas took Game 1 in front of a raucous crowd. But the Caps bounced back to even the series two nights later, and they won twice at home in front of the most electric crowds Washington hockey has ever produced. Game 5 went back and forth, but the Caps closed strong after years of limping to the finish.

Ovechkin was the star, and won Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, but this was the kind of team effort that championships require. Holtby was a monster, stopping 92.2 percent of shots in the postseason and making a save in Game 2 that might end up being the defining moment of this magical run. Evgeny Kuznetsov totaled 32 points in 24 playoff games. Devante Smith-Pelly matched his seven regular-season goals with seven in the playoffs, including scores in the final three games. The list goes on.

When it was over, they celebrated as a team. Everyone hugged everyone else. They took a group photo with the Cup. Players and coaches and executives and friends and family and fans shared the moment together. That’s what made it special.

*****

I wasn’t downtown for this. I was home, where I could be as quietly nervous as I needed to be. In my gut, I didn’t think they’d win Game 5, so I didn’t prioritize making plans around it, and then suddenly it was game time. They were down 3-2 in the middle of the third period and couldn’t get much going. At this point, I pondered what I’d do for Game 6, and whether Vegas was about to start a heartbreaking comeback.

Then Smith-Pelly scored. Then Eller scored. And suddenly the Caps were 7:37 from a championship. I watched that time tick away, simultaneously ecstatic and horrified, simultaneously alone and surrounded by people feeling the same way.

The clock inexplicably stopped working toward the end, so in the final minutes of a potential clinching game, nobody had any clue how much time was left. After it was restored, it stopped a couple more times as it wound down. It stopped with less than a second left, and Caps players were celebrating, and I still couldn’t bring myself to do the same because, while only so much crazy shit can happen in 0.6 seconds, it’s not past Washington to be on the wrong end of a miracle. But it didn’t happen, and the clock struck zero, and all the people in white sweaters and ice skates merged into one critical mass at the end of the rink.

I’ve seen plenty of these celebratory dogpiles, but it’s always been someone else’s team. It’s always been a different city going wild in the streets. Now, it was my team, and my city.

And it was incredible.

I hugged my dad, who’s been there for this whole odyssey of my sports fandom. I messaged my friends. I basically inhaled celebratory tweets. The whole thing is still surreal right now. It sunk in a little when I kept the TV on for two hours after the Cup was clinched, and it sunk in a little when I went downstairs in the morning and saw the headlines and pictures in The Washington Post. It’ll sink in a little more at the parade—no way I’m missing that—and it’ll sink in a little more as people refer to the Caps as champions for months on end.

This one’s for the fans who always believed this would happen. It’s also for the fans who thought they’d never see it. This one’s for the locals who’ve ridden with these teams their whole lives; it’s for the transplants who’ve wrapped themselves up in it. This one’s for those who have never experienced anything like it; it’s for those who had to wait 25 years to experience it again.

This one’s for Washington.

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