PITTSBURGH — In North American cities other than Washington, no matter how fortunate or cursed, no matter how rabid or indifferent, what happened here Monday night would have registered somewhere on the spectrum between mild celebration and contented shrug. There was no grand achievement, no banner earned, no trophy lifted. Washington Capitals players huddled and whooped at center, but they did not fling gloves and spray bubbly. It was, for those places allowed to have nice things, a triumph worthy of happiness, not history.
In Washington, though, Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime, breakaway goal was an occasion worthy of marking the date and time: May 7, 2018, exactly 10 p.m. How does it feel, Washington? Teenagers in and around the Beltway have no clue, college kids from the DMV aren’t old enough to know and everybody else can barely remember: Washington will root for a team vying for entry into the finals of one of the four major sports. It is an unremarkable sentence made remarkable for how long it has not been written.
Monday night at PPG Paints Arena, the Capitals snapped one of the strangest, cruelest and most improbable streaks in sports. They became the first Washington representative since 1998 to reach the conference finals in one of the four major North American sports, knocking out the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins with a 2-1 victory in Game 6 of the second round.
In its two-decade life span, the streak had left bitter notes on Presidents’ Trophies, runaway National League East titles, blossoming first-overall draft picks and a phenom quarterback. It earned the label “D.C. Sports Curse,” because karma provided order where logic could offer none. It turned regular-season joyrides into postseason gut-punches. It got coaches fired, tainted players’ reputations and made fans question their sanity. And now, it is dead.
“It’s almost embarrassing it’s taken this long for us to get past it,” Capitals and Wizards Owner Ted Leonsis said Monday night, smiling in the victorious visitors locker room.
Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, the hero of the series, insisted he did not know about Washington’s staggering inability to reach a league’s final four. But he could sense his professional hometown’s ache to advance further, and how prior shortcomings had piled up. So far, he said, the Capitals have not done enough.
“As a group, we wanted to give our city more from a playoffs standpoint,” Holtby said. “More doesn’t mean a conference final. More means a Stanley Cup.”
Elsewhere, the idea of making the conference final does not infect a city’s collective psyche. But other places don’t have D.C.’s scars. Forty-four North American cities, including Las Vegas, which has only had one team for one season, had seen a conference finalist in one of the big four sports since Washington last saw one. It has become its own entity and made locals pick philosophical sides, such as whether to appreciate the constant contention or bemoan the annual letdown.
“The D.C. sports city thing is the biggest crock of crap in the entire world,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said over the weekend. “If [people] don’t like every one of their teams going to the playoffs every year, then they should go to a different city where no teams make playoffs. Where none of their teams are competitive every year. It’s the biggest crock. Of course everybody wants their teams to win championships. Move to New England.
“I mean, I get it. Whatever. ‘All the sports teams choke.’ Every city besides one chokes every year. So what. Whatever. I know. It’s fun for [media members]. It’s a great city for being a sports fan. I think people should take the positives. Everyone’s so negative nowadays. ‘Oh, they didn’t win the Stanley Cup.’ Yeah, well they’re a really good team every year that gives you guys something to go watch 80-something times a year that’s going to be one of the better teams in the league. You could be a team that’s terrible.”
Monday night in San Diego, between the third period and overtime, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo reflected on the city’s playoff disappointments while waiting for the game to come back on in the clubhouse. He said a victory would be “a good shot in the arm for the city,” but he played down the psychic carry-over a Caps victory may have.
“I will say one thing: D.C. is in the playoffs in just about every sport, every year,” Rizzo said. “How do you get over the hump? How do you win in the playoffs? You win in the playoffs by getting the to playoffs as many times as you can and giving yourselves as many chances as possible.”
But what happens when the laws probability forget one city? The Capitals, Nationals, Redskins and Wizards had played 71 seasons collectively without once advancing to the conference finals. The chance of any random team claiming one of four conference finals spots any random year in a 30-team league is 13.3 percent. The odds of betting on an outcome 71 times with a 13.3 percent chance of winning, and then losing every time, is 1 in 25,852.
But some of those teams were no random entrants; they were among the very best teams in their leagues. The Nationals led the National League in wins in a three-year span, and the Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy three times with Alex Ovechkin. Washington’s four major sports teams played 13 games in which a victory would have advanced them to a conference final round. They lost all 13. The odds of losing 13 straight coins flips are 8,195 to 1.
Recent regular-season success, even dominance, delivered a special kind of heartache. Anguish occurred with such overwhelming frequency and diabolical novelty that fans could be tempted to believe cosmic forces had aligned against them. The most joyous moments — Jayson Werth walking off, John Wall jumping on the scorer’s table, 14-0 over the Seahawks — always led ultimately to more heartbreak.
Monday night reversed the script. The Capitals were undermanned, playing without injured Nicklas Backstrom and suspended Tom Wilson. The season was expected to be a regrouping under a coach, Barry Trotz, without a contract for next season. And yet there was Ovechkin, finding Kuznetsov breaking away at mid-ice.
Now that they are finally in the third round, the Capitals have no interest the city’s milestone.
“The goal isn’t to get past the second round,” forward Jay Beagle said. “The goal is the Stanley Cup. That’s always been the goal.”
“I really want to win a Cup,” Leonsis said. “While this feels good, we want to win a Cup.”
After Kuznetsov scored and the Capitals spilled over the boards, out in San Diego several corners of the Nationals clubhouse celebrated along with the folks back home. Rizzo, eager for one more chance in one more October, pulled out his phone and sent a text message to a reporter. In other cities, it would have made no sense. In Washington, on this night, it was a rally cry for a region.
It read: “What curse????”
Jorge Castillo contributed to this report.