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At Long Last

June 8, 2018, 11:37 AM ET [2 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
Blogger •NHL Hall of Fame writer • RSSArchiveCONTACT
Just two minutes left in a 44-year wait and the clock stopped. Yes, the bleeping scoreboard clock stopped and this edition of the Caps–with the night–from-day difference from the previous 43–was back in the casino where they want you to lose all track of time, your shirt, and, surely in the cruelest trick yet of all the ones that have been played upon Washington’s hockey team, the 2018 Stanley Cup.

Up a goal, their fans had to count down the seconds grain by grain of sand sifting down the hourglass through five excruciating defensive zone faceoffs and of course, a missed empty net by Nicklas Backstrom, reprising the role always performed by Mike Gartner when the Caps first turned the corner from dreadful to dreadfully disappointing.

The last draw came with .06 remaining, too late for anything but the most impossibly stunning goal ever. But the Caps were begging for it by celebrating on the bench, almost like they didn’t know the history, even though Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin had spent 11 and 13 years living the last, and most painful chapters of it.

Time was standing still, like Jack Lynch used to stand still on the early Caps blueline, guys whizzing by him. Six tenths of a second was plenty of time for Pat LaFontaine, Petr Nedved, or Joffrey Lupul to appear out of nowhere, one to tie, another to win it in the third or fourth overtime.

Unlike their finals opponent, the best expansion team ever in any sport, the Capitals were born in shame, worse than the Kansas City Scouts by far, which only shows how far the Caps have had to come. In fact, that first Washington team was the worst in history to that point and the next few weren’t much better.

Landover became a place where old Flyers went to have their careers die. When the Capitals became decent in the early eighties, they were the subject of plots darker than the stands in their arena, blowing series lead after series lead, their fans winding up on their backs in more good grief than Charlie Brown after their chains were pulled by Lucy. No matter how often it happened, they never saw it coming. Gone for another year before the cherry blossoms bloomed.

Eventually the franchise moved into an arena that has had more names than the team has had coaches. The team came to exist because, like the Globetrotters, the NHL needed a Washington Generals, even thought they were disguised under the name Capitals. Same role. Same deal. The club’s first superduperstar, Alex Ovechkin, came and changed everything and changed nothing, only making the Caps more excruciating than ever when three Presidents Trophies turned into tin cups.

The year 2010–when they had the best record and another 3-1 lead, this one to Montreal, swirled down the drain in the first round was the worst ever only until last year, when Washington had the best team again and was courageously finally proving it, this time being the ones to fight back from 3-1. Then the Caps died miserably in the home Game Seven they had so hard earned. .

Justin Williams, Karl Alzner and Marcus Johansson were cap casualties. Coach Barry Trotz was left to coach the team on the last year of his contract, John Carlson’s expiring too as the truck was being backed up for sure. The Caps’ window, opened by their fans to yell they weren’t going to take it anymore even though they would, was slamming shut. And the Caps, starting this season 5-6-1, losing a game 8-2 in Philly, appeared to know the gig was up.

How much disappointment can one take anymore, really? We picked Washington to miss the playoffs, only this time to wind up the Charlie Brown on his back. With about 80 per cent of the team the Caps had a year ago, they proved to have 20 per cent more resolve, and eventually a 100 per cent sense of destiny.

Like a year ago, they came from two games down in a series—this one against Columbus, only finished it this time. Next round, they got the goal of their fans’ dreamiest dreams, from Evgeni Kuznetsov in overtime, to purge Pittsburgh on their way to coming from ahead one more time, after 2-0 turned into 2-3 to Tampa Bay. Backs to the wall, blindfold and cigarettes in place once more, Washington won Games Six and Seven against a really good Lightning team, probably on paper the best team.

Then they had to take a pick ax to the Golden Knight’s bubble of bullion and did with a save by Braden Holtby on Alex Tuch that will last far longer in Washington than anything that Barack Obama was able to accomplish and thereafter making Vegas break down badly in its own end. These Caps became only the second team in history to win the Cup after trailing in every one of its series. The primal screams by Ovechkin, in his case forming for 13 years in his oft-overturned gut, mixed with the tears by him and for him.

Look how grey he got trying to win this thing. His redemption was as worth celebrating as his transformation. Ovechkin was coming back in the zone, blocking shots, playing like a man possessed through all four rounds. There was not a single game where you wondered where he was and the closer it got to the end, the more determined he became. Lasting image: When the Golden Knights tied Game Five for the first time, the Great Eight bulled into the Vegas end off the faceoff, then one timed another goal on the power play, the Caps stealing the Golden Knights M.O of bouncing right back.

Vegas did one more time to take the lead, leaving it for the Great Dane, Lars Eller, who scored the goal in double overtime in Columbus that started the Caps road back, to finish off the championship. “It was like getting to write the end to the best story ever told,” said the hero. That puck hatching out from underneath Marc-Andre Fleury for Eller‘s tap-in was the greatest sight in franchise history for 7:47, until the one of the champions piling on Holtby and each other.

Yvon Labre, who carried the locker room trash can like the Stanley Cup when those first-year Caps won their first road game after 37 tries, had to be in that pile, and so was Bryan Murray, even if didn’t live to see it. Bobby Gould, Eric Fehr, Bengt Gustafsson, and especially Rod Langway, all victims of the hockey gods’ favorite and cruelest practical jokes, c’mon down and bring all your heartbroken teammates. The gag is up. Gaggers no more.

The Golden Knights were a wonderful story, but the Caps were the better one all along. We always cry at Cuppings, because we know–although not as much the Capitals know–just how hard it is to win one, and can share the joy of someone on any team who had been disappointed too often. This time the tears were for the whole franchise and everybody who has ever cared about it, who had earned, the hard way, their day at last.
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