Sunday, January 20, 2013

Heartbreak and Elation: Washington Capitals

I recently posted my memories of the good and bad feelings that came from being a fan of the Washington Redskins.  Although recent years have not been kind to the franchise, they have, at least, been to the mountain top in my lifetime.  I have memories, faint as they may be getting, of them being the best team in the NFL and on the cusp of a championship year in and year out.

Being a Washington Capitals fan has been difficult.  Outside of the city of Cleveland, I don't know a worse franchise to be so enamored with.  No, the Capitals aren't a bad or poorly ran franchise.  They aren't the Washington Bullets Wizards.  The Capitals have been, for the most part, a really good team.  From the early to mid 1980's through this past season, Washington has made the playoffs in 23 of 29 seasons.  That's quite consistent.  The other consistent is the heartbreak that they have caused fans once the schedule changes from the regular season to the post season.

It's one thing to be hapless and it's an entirely different feeling to be so close to glory that you can taste it only to have the rug pulled out from under your feet in a different way every time.  At least Charlie Brown knew Lucy was going to pull back the football, didn't he?  The Capitals find a new way every year it seems to reinvent heartbreak.  They give fans just enough elation to think maybe this is the year...they can't be the Chicago Cubs of the NHL forever can they??

As for me, I was born in 1978 and began listening to the Capitals on the radio as I went to sleep in the late 80's.  My father was never, and still isn't, a big hockey fan so I didn't get to watch them much on HTS (before becoming CSN).  I remember the playoff run in 1990 faintly, but between the Redskins dominating the headlines and my own busy athletic schedule of rec basketball, I couldn't follow them day to day.  It wasn't until 1992 when I coaxed my father to take me to my first Capitals game up in Landover, MD that I became a budding fanatic.

We'll start there as I go through my own personal journey of my top 10 moments of elation and heartbreak provided by the Washington Capitals.


Honorable Mentions:
1988 Game 7 vs. Philadelphia (Dale Hunter OT Game Winner)
1990 Playoffs (John Druce Gets Loose)
2009 Game 6 vs Pittsburgh (David Steckel OT Game Winner)
2011 January 1st Winter Classic vs. Pittsburgh

10. 1992 - February 9th vs. San Jose

This game won't stand out to anyone reading this, but it was the first game I saw in person.  This is where it all began for me.  John Druce apparently was still 'loose' as he scored a hat trick in a 6-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks.  It was about that time where 'Starter' jackets were en vogue and everyone owned a San Jose Sharks jacket.  I remember that is why I chose that game to be my first to attend.  As I have told everyone since that date, hockey is best in person.  This was doubly true pre-HD and wide screen televisions.  Screw that glowing Fox puck and red tail.  Go to a game, go to a playoff game.  If you don't get goose bumps and chills down the spine, hockey isn't for you.

9. 1994 - February 5th Peter Bondra 5 Goal Game

My favorite player of my youth had his best game as a professional that night.  To be honest, I wasn't watching the game.  I was, though, listening to the game on the radio as my mom and I drove to Washington D.C. to watch a comedy show.  I still remember yelling Bonzai!!! when he scored.  When I got back in the car and listened to the recap on the radio and heard he ended up with 5 goals, I was amazed.  I didn't think that was possible.  When you as a fan can remember exactly what you were doing, who you were with nearly 20 years after it happened for a regular season game, you know it meant something special.

8. 2009 Playoffs - Game 2 vs. Pittsburgh 

Now we leave my own personal memories and begin to relive all the seminal moments of the franchises' history.  What better place to start than Washington vs. Pittsburgh.  No, don't click away, every once in a while the Capitals were on the happy side of things against their bitter rivals.  Game 2 in 2009 was one such night.  At the peak of the Ovechkin vs. Crosby rivalry came a 2nd round playoff match up.  After taking Game 1, the Capitals made it two straight wins behind the a hat trick by Ovechkin.  He was matched goal for goal by Crosby as both superstars finished with 3 goals.  The dueling hat tricks between the two elite superstars was exactly what NHL fans wanted to see.  It highlighted what turned out to be a full seven game series (shocker!) that will be covered later in this post.

7. 1998 Playoffs - Game 6 vs. Boston

1998...all happy moment stories for Capitals fans begin and unfortunately, usually end with this single year.  The run to their only Stanley Cup Finals appearance all started here.  Before we get to Game 6, let me tell you a quick story:  Going into Game 3 of this first round series, the Capitals were coming off a 2OT loss.  I knew that the Capitals always seemed to lose OT playoff games.  Game 3 looked to be no different.  I was at college (JMU) and Boston scored the OT winning in Game 3 and before the red light even came on, I turned my television off, threw the remote and stormed off to dinner.  Hours went by and I avoided the internet, television and suite mates.  I isolated myself until 11:00 pm when I flipped on SportsCenter while doing some homework and the Capitals highlights came up and I sat there cussing at them until I heard the OT goal was waived off...WHAT?!??!  In fact, Joe Juneau scored in 2OT to give the Capitals the victory and a 2-1 series lead.  Fast forward to Game 6 and the Capitals now held a 3-2 series lead in games and once again the game headed to overtime.  Back at my parents house, I screamed with excitement as Brian Bellows unleashed a slap shot past Byron Dafoe to stun the Boston faithful and the Capitals moved on to round 2.

6. 2008 - The Streak to End the Season

For many fans of Capitals rivals, this is where many jokes occur that the city of Washington actually discovered they had a hockey team.  At the start of the season, Verizon Center often frequented more fans of the road team than the home team and fan interaction during games was scarce.  Glen Hanlon was fired as Capitals coach after a 6-14-1 start and mostly unknown Bruce Boudreau was elevated from the AHL farm team Hershey to take over.  He brought a fast paced, run and gun, offense oriented style of play that fit to a tee the skill players that were on the roster.  From last place in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals climbed the ladder and were within earshot of a playoff spot with a month to go.  Hopes were dimmed somewhat after Nicklaus Backstrom scored an own goal against Pittsburgh as the Capitals dropped their second game in a row.  With 12 games remaining the margin for error was slim.  Washington, behind a new 'Rock the Red' fan campaign and stellar play from goaltender Cristobal Huet reeled off 11 wins including a division clinching 3-1 home victory over Florida on the final day of the season.  After 3 straight seasons finishing in last place, the Capitals were once again Southeast Division champions.

5. 2008 Playoffs - Game 1 vs. Philadelphia

That streak of wins leads us into the first game of the playoffs that season.  It was the first playoff game for Alex Ovechkin and I happened to be sitting 4 rows from the glass right on the blue line where the Capitals were shooting in the 1st and 3rd periods.  The 'Rock the Red' fan campaign was still in its infancy and by game time I looked around at the arena and had only seen fans like this one other time in my life (foreshadowing alert).  The place was electric.  After Donald Brashear (of all people) put the Capitals up 1-0, dreams of a Stanley Cup flowed throughout the arena.  Then the reality of the moment seemed to hit the young Capitals as Philadelphia scored 4 of the next 5 goals to hold a 4-2 lead after two periods.  The Verizon Center was silent.  Then Mike Green took over.  Less than two minutes into the third period he scored to shave the deficit to one and on a power play about five minutes later he scored again to tie the game at four.  The crowd was back in it.  That's when the face of the franchise announced his arrival with not only his first ever playoff goal, but a game winner to boot.
The place went nuts.  My friend and I were hugging each other, we were hugging strangers.  This was only game one.  Imagine how it would feel in the later rounds with even more at stake.

4. 1998 Playoffs - Game 2 vs. Buffalo

Memorial Day 1998.  The day started as any normal Memorial Day had to that point in my life.  In Falls Church there has been a parade since 1982 and I had been to just about all of them.  I knew the Capitals were playing Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals that night and that was the only thing on my mind the whole day.  My best friend worked for the local paper (The Falls Church News-Press) at the time and the editor received four lower level tickets to that nights Capitals game from a Washington Mystics player who the paper sponsored to be in the parade.  He took my friend, me and one other friend that night.  It was the first ever playoff game for me and I had never been more excited.  Dressed for the 'white out' the and with two pom-poms in hand I rocked out to the 'Beautiful People' intro and I don't think my feet ever hit the ground.  I had never witnessed a crowd like that at a Capitals game.  Even President Bill Clinton showed up.  The game had everything.  Peter Bondra scored.  Dominik Hasek threw his catching glove in frustration after being hit in the corner.  I openly mocked Matthew least until he scored in the final moments to send the game into overtime.  Down 1-0 in the series, it was basically a 'must-win' game for Washington.  Just over three minutes into the extra frame, Todd Krygier sent the fans home happy.  I didn't have a voice for days.  Greatest Capitals moment I saw in person ever.

3. 2009 Playoffs - Game 7 vs. New York Rangers

By the time the 2009 playoffs began, the Capitals were beginning to resemble Stanley Cup contenders.  They drew the New York Rangers and promptly dropped the first two games at home.  The season appeared to be over as the Capitals were apparently headed for another playoff bust.  They won Game 3, lost Game 4, but won Games 5 and 6 to even the series at three games apiece.  Just like in 2008, the Capitals hosted a Game 7, but this year they were seen as the prohibitive favorite.  The Rangers struck first, but were answered later in the 1st period by Alexander Semin.  Halfway through the 3rd period, the game was still knotted at one and it looked as though the next goal was going to be the winner with the way Henrik Lundqvist and Semyon Valarmov were playing in goal.  That next goal came from nineteen year veteran Sergei Federov.  In what turned out to be his final goal of his Hall of Fame career, he sent Washington to the second round for the first time since 1998.  It was their first Game 7 victory of any sorts since the Dale Hunter overtime goal in 1988.

2. 2012 Playoffs - Game 7 vs. Boston

The 2011-12 season was tumultuous to say the least in Washington.  The high flying, offensive dominant Capitals shot out of the gate with seven consecutive victories.  Fifteen games later, they had fired their head coach, Bruce Boudreau as they stood 12-9-1.  The ex-captain Dale Hunter was brought in to coach the team and he quickly instilled a defensive minded approach to the game.  Difficult at times to watch, the Capitals stayed afloat enough to earn a playoff spot as the 7th seed (out of 8) and were paired up against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins from Boston.  Heavy underdogs this go around the Capitals managed a thrilling 2OT victory in between two losses over the series first three games.  Then Washington won two straight and headed to D.C. with a chance to eliminate Boston in stunning fashion.  Game 6 went to overtime and as Washington fans had witnessed time and time again, Boston scored sending the series back to Boston for a decisive Game 7.  Nobody seemed to give Washington much of a chance, and to be honest, I didn't think they would fare well at all.  They played snug to the vest and for the fourth time in the series the game headed to overtime.  That is where Joel Ward forever etched his name into Washington Capitals lore.  He cleaned up a shot by fellow fan favorite Mike Knuble and Washington dethroned the champs and moved on to round number two.

1. 1998 Playoffs - Game 6 vs. Buffalo

As stated earlier, most good stories about the history of the Capitals end with 1998.  Their final win of that magical season came in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals in Buffalo.  The series between future Hall of Fame goalie Dominik Hasek and future Vezina Award winner (Best goalie of the year in 2000) Olaf Kolzig was as good as billed.  Through five games each goalie had a shut out and there were three one goal games including two in overtime (both won by Washington).  Game six would be the third overtime game of the series.  I was at my parents house, still wearing the same white t-shirt from Game 2, still waving the pom-poms that were handed out there and I don't think I blinked the entire game.  I had no interest in a Game 7 for obvious reasons, but knowing that Hasek had the ability to stand on his head (literally) and dominate was the primary reason.  Joe Juneau made sure that didn't happen.  He got a shot past Hasek and I erupted and streaked through the house screaming like an idiot.  My friend called me and all I remember yelling was 'We're going to the Stanley Cup!!!'  Good times.

But there have been plenty of bad times.



1987 Playoffs Game 7 vs. New York Islanders (Too young to remember)

2003 Playoffs Game 6 vs. Tampa Bay
Fire Sale of 2004

10. 1995 Playoffs Game 6 vs. Pittsburgh/2010 Playoffs Game 5 vs. Montreal (Tie)

I couldn't decide which possible clinching, non Game 7 was the worst home playoff performance in the history of the franchise.  In 1995, Washington was en route to blowing a 3 games to 1 best of seven series lead against Pittsburgh (shocked, I know).  Their best chance was in Game 6 at home, but Washington was spanked in that game as the Capitals ended up using three goaltenders.  That final score 7-1.  Not surprisingly the Capitals mailed in Game 7 as well losing 3-0.  Fifteen years later, the Capitals were the best team in the NHL.  They had a 3 games to 1 series lead against a seemingly over matched squad from Montreal.  Ten minutes into Game 5, Washington had already surrendered two goals, thrown away momentum and gave the Canadiens a glimmer of hope.  Even though neither of these games had true 'heartbreak', they were seminal moments of playoff failures in a long string of playoff failures for the franchise.

9. 1993 Game 6 vs. New York Islanders

This was early on in my life as a Capitals fan.  Again there wasn't heartbreak in the truest sense, but it was my first real experience with the season ending.  Washington lost in six games against the Islanders, but this game will always be remembered for the late hit that Dale Hunter laid on Pierre Turgeon after he iced the game with the fifth Islanders goal.  He separated the shoulder of Turgeon and received a 21 game suspension the following season which left a permanent black eye on the stellar career of Washington's beloved captain.  As a fan you never want a player on your team to be 'that guy' and on that night, Hunter was him and then some.

 8. 1995 Playoffs Game 5 vs. Pittsburgh

The game before the one written about earlier definitely had heartbreak.  Up 3 games to 1 and up 2 goals to 0 in Game 5 and coming off of consecutive 6-2 victories, things were looking as good as possible for Washington.  Then Jaromir Jagr undressed Joe Juneau who got stuck on defense and Jim Carey to pull the Penguins within one.  Then it was tied.  Dale Hunter put the Caps back up 3-2 with his second goal which was quickly answered by Ron Francis.  My emotions were on tilt.  Peter Bondra and Jagr both scored in the third period and once again the game was knotted up.  Unbelievable.  Then the third goal in 90 seconds and the second of the night by Bonzai!!!! gave the Capitals a 5-4 lead.  That had to be enough...right??  Nope.  Goal Pittsburgh, tied at overtime we go.  That's where Luc Robitaille ended it, giving Pittsburgh a 6-5 win.  As stated above the Penguins outscored Washington 10-1 in Games 6 & 7 and the collapse was complete.
7. 2012 Playoffs Game 7 vs. New York Rangers

It still stings like it just happened.  Mainly because as of me writing this the Capitals have only played one game since.  From huge underdogs against Boston to slight underdogs against New York to even expecting to win Game 7, the Capitals gritty style of play just began to click come playoff time under Dale Hunter.  Through six games the two teams had traded wins and losses, but the last two wins for New York had required overtime, giving fans and players alike supreme confidence that going to New York for Game 7 would be winnable.  The team had just gone to Boston and done the same thing so why not once more?  This is why this game makes the list.  After a season of lethargy, I began to believe.  The city began to believe.  More importantly the team seemed to believe in the system and in itself.  Unfortunately, Henrik Lundqvist was too good on that night and rookie goaltender Braden Holtby was just not good enough.  The Rangers took a 2-0 lead midway through the 3rd period and even though Washington answered right back to keep me glued to the screen, they could never get the equalizer and the short, uneven tenure as head coach for Dale Hunter came to an end. 

6. 2003 Playoffs Game 3 vs. Tampa Bay

This is the forgotten playoff year for many in Capitals history.  The only playoff appearance for Washington over six years (five seasons) began with high hopes and ended with the franchise on the cusp of disarray.  After trading for hated Cap-killer Jaromir Jagr the year before, the '02-'03 Capitals had hoped to ride his talents along with Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig to the promise land.  In round one, Washington marched down to Tampa Bay and outscored the Lightning 9-3 to go up 2-0.  Heading back to Washington, I secured tickets to both Games 3 and 4 with the hopes of sweeping away the Lightning.  Silly, silly, boy.  In Game 3 Tampa Bay held three different 1 goal leads, but each time Washington evened it up as the game headed to overtime tied at 3.  That's where all hell broke loose and I will forever blame the referees for changing the course of the series and the franchise as a whole for the next half decade.  *Editor's note* (Yes I understand that Ovechkin era also came from that crap, but I'll never let this game go).  It's rare to see penalties called in overtime.  Not only did Washington get called for a penalty, but :54 seconds after one was called, a second was called.  If I remember correctly, never had a home team faced a 5 on 3 power play in the history of the playoffs.  I'm so happy I was there for the first time.  Of course Tampa Bay scored, and the ice was then littered with anything and everything.  I used so much foul language that even George Carlin told me to watch my tongue.  The Capitals came out flat in Game 4 and never recovered, eventually losing four straight including a gut wrenching 3OT game to end their season in Game 6.

5. 1996 Playoffs Game 4 vs. Pittsburgh

Speaking of multiple overtime games.  My senior year in high school saw yet another Capitals versus Penguins playoff series.  This time the series started in Pittsburgh and Washington promptly went up north and took the two games.  With their foot on the throat of Pittsburgh, Washington played another poor home game in Game 3 dropping it 4-1 making Game 4 a big swing game.  I had my friend over to my house for the game that started just after seven p.m. and wouldn't end until two in the morning.  The usual suspects were present as both Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra scored for their teams respectively.  The game was tied at two when it went to overtime #1.  No scoring.  Onto overtime #2.  No scoring.  During that overtime, Washington had a chance to win it, but Joe Juneau flubbed a penalty shot on the terrible ice.  Onto overtime #3.  No scoring.  That is when my dad awoke and yelled down questioning why my friend and I were still up and had the television on.  'The game is still on, Dad,' I pleaded.  My friend was spooked.  He wanted to leave as the fourth overtime began.  I told him that he couldn't leave.  Bad karma.  He insisted, I relented.  The rest is history.  The Penguins received a power play (yeah where have I heard that before) late in the period and with less than a minute until intermission for a fifth overtime Petr Nedved beat Olaf Kolzig and I was crushed.  Washington never recovered (same story, different year) as they lost the next two games as well.

4. 2008 Playoffs Game 7 vs. Philadelphia

Game 1 of this series was on the happy side of this post, but like many series including this one, the Capitals started hot and ended up fizzling away.  Up 1 game to none, Washington went on to lose the next three games and faced sudden elimination.  Then they righted the ship winning Game 5 at home and Game 6 on the road.  Heading back to D.C. to the ravenous fans that had finally bought into the franchise in droves looked to be perfect for Washington.  Nicklaus Backstrom scored first and momentum had completely swung in favor of the young Capitals.  Although the Flyers scored the next two goals, Alex Ovechkin tied it up at two and the game headed to overtime following a scoreless third period.  Once again, the referees helped play a part in the demise of a Capitals season.  A 'penalty' by Tom Poti just 4 minutes into overtime gave Philadelphia all the edge they would need.  With just nine seconds left to kill of that penalty Joffrey Lupul broke the hearts of the red clad fans in the Verizon Center with a series ending goal.  Once again, vitriol was spewed towards the referees as another overtime power play goal that had crippled the Capitals in past seasons finally cost them one.

3. 2009 Playoffs Game 7 vs. Pittsburgh 

The following year and another series where an earlier game proved to be much happier than a later one.  The Capitals once again won the first two games against Pittsburgh in a series and as per usual pissed their advantage away swiftly.  The Penguins won three straight games and headed back to Pittsburgh for Game 6 where every fan expected Washington to crawl into the fetal position and die.  Somehow this version of the Capitals proved resilient as the not only played tough, but survived a late Sidney Crosby game tying goal to win in overtime.  The curse had been broken.  Washington was now going to be the one that came from behind to steal a series.  This was the beginning of something special.  Game 7 started and Alex Ovechkin had an early breakaway opportunity.  Stoned.  That was it.  That is all the Capitals brought to the penultimate game against their bitter and hated rivals.  The Penguins scored two goals within 8 seconds of each other and the rout was on.  It was 5-0 before the Capitals scored.  It was pitiful.  It was painful.  It was to Pittsburgh and to Sidney Crosby of all people.  The kicker was that Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup leaving Capitals fans thinking about what could have been.

2. 1998 Playoffs Game 2 vs. Detroit

The only negative memory for me from the 1998 playoffs comes from Game 2 against Detroit.  Of course it was the best game of the four that Washington played against an obviously more talented Red Wings squad.  After being held in check in Game 1, Washington exploded in Game 2 leading 4-1 after two periods.  Then Detroit made it interesting as you figured they would.  With two goals the lead had dissipated to just one, but an Esa Tikkanen breakaway looked to be the goal that Washington would need to finally ice the game and give the Capitals their first ever victory in a Stanley Cup Finals game and more important level the series at a game apiece heading back to Washington.  Then it for yourself, if you can:
Shortly thereafter Detroit tied the game up, and then went on to win the game in overtime.  Washington (have I typed this before?) never recovered and lost both games in Washington.  I'm not saying that the Tikkanen miss would have turned the series, but we'll never know, and that is what kills me.

1. 2010 Playoffs Game 7 vs. Montreal

This was probably the best Capitals team to ever take the ice.  They won the President's Trophy that regular season by having the most points in the NHL.  They were a favorite, if not the favorite to win the Stanley Cup that year.  They led Montreal 3 games to 1 and then it all fell apart.  Game 5 was covered earlier.  A horrid start and Jaroslav Halak took care of the rest.  Game 6 was no better as Montreal jumped on Washington with the first 3 goals and Halak made 53!! saves to win 4-1.  Back home, the pressure was squarely on the shoulders of Washington.  I headed to Atlantic City for an already planned birthday trip.  As the puck dropped I settled into an out of the way bar to watch the game, thankfully in peace and quiet because I was a nervous wreck.  Then it happened.  About a dozen people entered the establishment and saw that I was watching the game and were happy.  They told me they had just gotten into town from...wait for it...Montreal!!  Then I knew, I definitely knew.  Washington dominated the game, again, out shooting the Canadiens 42-16, but still trailed 1-0 heading into the 3rd period.  That's when Montreal seemed to have put the game away with their second goal with only 3 1/2 minutes left.  Brooks Laich finally solved Halak with just over two minutes remaining in the game.  With 1 minute 44 seconds left Montreal took a penalty giving the vaunted Capitals power play on final chance to salvage their season.  It didn't happen.  The best season in franchise history was squandered away in a blink of an eye.  They didn't play poorly, but were just out dueled by a ridiculously hot goal tender.  Frustration doesn't even begin to cover my feelings about this one.  At least I wasn't surrounded by a bunch of Canadiens fans.  Dammit.

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