It’s hard to believe that a year has passed since one of the most memorable, as well as one of the most stress-relieving moments that most Caps fans can remember occurred. “The Save” is up there as well, but the anniversary for that is a month away.
It’s early in the first overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, Evgeny Kuznetsov is skating straight towards Penguins’ netminder Matt Murray with Pens’ defensemen Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang a little behind to Kuzy’s left and right. A moment later after a quick deke, Kuzy deposits the puck between Murray’s pads into Pittsburgh’s net and glides towards and then along the boards.
Just before Alex Ovechkin can celebrate with him, Kuzy makes a quick 180 degree turn and executes one of his best bird cellys ever. He gets mobbed along the boards near the Pittsburgh net with Matt Niskanen jumping so high into the glass that he knocks over an unsuspecting Pens fan who seems less than pleased.
All of this to the glorious sounds of John Walton screaming “He scores! He scores! Evgeny Kuznetsov wins it for Washington! It’s off to the third round! The demons have been exorcised! Good morning, good afternoon, and good night Pittsburgh! We’re going to Tampa Bay! The Capitals have done it!”
I can’t speak for anyone else, but just getting by the Pens was to some degree satisfying enough for the moment. The Caps were now playing with house money.
By all accounts, the Caps’ best chances to capture the Cup were in the two prior seasons and they lost in both seasons to those same Penguins in heartbreaking fashion. I still remember that numb feeling walking out of then-Verizon Center following the 2-0 loss to Pittsburgh in 2017. It felt worse than in 2016 when the Caps were eliminated by Pittsburgh in 2016 in overtime. There was a two-year window to win the Cup, it was closing and we all knew it. The salary cap and the Vegas expansion draft was not going to allow the team to remain even close to intact. Caps’ GM Brian MacLellan summed it up best when he said, “It’s no different than teams that won in the past. We have the same kind of hangover but we haven’t won a championship and we’re dealing with it now.”
Their best chance was now gone. Tampa Bay would be getting better, Toronto would be getting better, Edmonton (at least I thought at the time) would be getting better. The thought was the same though. The Caps time at the summit was ending and the chances of winning that elusive title were diminishing along with it. I resigned myself to the idea that I might not get the chance to see them win a title in my lifetime. Most of my friends and fellow Caps fans felt the same way. If not now, when?
Then came the spring of 2018 and not-so-lofty expectations. Columbus was favored by many experts, but was ousted by the Caps after taking a 2-0 series lead. The dreaded Penguins were next, followed by Tampa (with Caps-killer Chris Kunitz, multiple former Rangers, and an almost blown series lead). The final hurdle was another Caps-nemesis and former Penguin Marc-Andre Fleury and the Golden Misfits to give the Caps their first opportunity to celebrate on the top of Everest. May 7 though with the Kuzy goal was the day that it all started to feel possible.
I understand that sports are entertainment, but there was something about that championship that makes everything that comes after with the Caps a little easier to take. Ovi has his Cup. Backstrom too. The doubters have been silenced. My neighbor no longer asks why I think things will be different this year.
So we are now one year removed from exorcising the demons and the Caps have been eliminated in the first round in a Game 7 overtime. In many ways the Caps were eliminated in the same manner that the Caps eliminated the then-reigning Cup champion Bruins in 2012. Am I disappointed? Absolutely. But just like every painful loss during the regular season (remember the large blown lead against Anaheim in the 3rd period or the last second game-tying goal by San Jose) and even on April 24 when I walked out of Capital One Arena for the final time this season, it was a lot easier knowing that another golden opportunity for that one chance to finally celebrate a Cup parade in Washington was not another missed opportunity that might never happen.
Thankfully, it did happen. We sang “We are the Champions” along with 16,000 fellow Caps fans in Capital One Arena, we celebrated in the streets, on the Portrait Gallery steps, along Constitution Avenue, along the Mall and on Opening Night when the championship banner was raised to the rafters for us to always enjoy. I never want the Caps to lose, but finally seeing the Caps win the Cup makes every Caps loss or playoff elimination a lot easier to take.
Here’s to next season and another chance at the Cup, but I am thankful that we at least have one, which (with 31, soon to be 32 teams) may never happen for a lot of teams and their fans. Thank you Caps for finally breaking through and giving us something that we can always look back on and remember.