As a life-long Washington Capitals fan, I’ve endured many trials. In 1995, when I was 8, I sat dejected as the Caps lost Game 7 of the Conference Quarterfinals to the Pittsburgh Penguins. At 9, history repeated itself as our boys went down in 6 to that same hated Pens team. Two years later, in 1997, I was about as exuberant as a kid could be as they fought their way to their first and only Stanley Cup appearance in franchise history.
I would imitate Peter Bondra’s slap shot in my living room. I’d marvel at the passing of Adam Oates. I loved the gritty play of Steve Konowalchuk and current coach Dale Hunter. My mom would let out condescending groans as her little boy cheered through brutal fights, courtesy of enforcers like Brendan Witt and Craig Berube.
In my young mind there was no better pairing of defensemen than Calle Johansson and youngster Sergei Gonchar. Olie Kolzig’s sparkling saves would provoke uncontrollable screams of euphoria and his vintage “Zilla” mask easily emanated awesomeness in my impressionable young mind.
These were my guys. I loved this team.
The years following the sweep at the hands of the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals were tough. The Caps didn’t make the playoffs the following season, finishing with a terrible point total of 68, and the subsequent two seasons would result in Conference Quarterfinals elimination by, you guessed it, the Pittsburgh Penguins. The 2001-02 season would see the Caps miss the playoffs again, also parting ways with coach Ron Wilson. Enter Bruce Cassidy.
The first season under Butch was a solid one. The Caps finished with 92 points, made the playoffs, and took a two-games-to-none lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning. I never imagined losing four in a row after storming out of the gate, but there we were, being eliminated once again in the Conference Quarterfinals. Martin St. Louis personally sent me into fan-hell as that Tampa Bay team would advance and go on to get smacked around in the Conference Semifinals by the eventual Cup-champion New Jersey Devils.
The Caps would finish with only 59 points the following season, provoking fan-depression and leaving little to be optimistic about as the league headed into a lockout that would cancel the 2004-05 season.
Throughout these years, as well as the 05-06 and 06-07 seasons in which the Caps missed out on the playoffs, the home barn was often empty and as quiet as a library. You could go to a home game on a Wednesday night with your fellow Caps fans who were difficult to find for many years in D. C., and buy 5 tickets for 5 bucks a piece. You’d never have to sit in your designated seats, as the availability to move throughout the upper deck was always there. The Goat was still there in full voice, only you could hear him much easier in the church-like atmosphere of the MCI/Verizon Center. There were no excellent “It’s all your fault!” chants, no Capstronaut, nothing. Brooks Laich even joked when he first arrived in a trade that many nights were “Fans dress like a seat” promotional nights. Then things changed.
The fan base received an injection of new life after the Caps went from worst to first in the 2007-08 season, eventually losing in Game 7 of the Quarterfinals to Philadelphia. Fans know how the following years went, being put through an annual gauntlet of sadness as regular season domination followed by postseason failures were prevalent. They weren’t living up to expectations and the exposure of their weaknesses in playing a finesse style by defensively sound teams was growing all too familiar. The Caps would lose two more Game 7s in this span. Knowing this history and enduring these disappointments for the greater majority of my life, I was surprised at how optimistic I was when the puck dropped last night for Game 7 in Boston. This optimism led me to partake in many superstitions. I had to sit a certain way, I was shooting wristers at my couch in the basement, I wore a lucky shirt as well as hockey gloves for most of the game. To say I was a nervous wreck would be putting it lightly. And then magic happened.
Last night’s 2-1 overtime win wasn’t a championship, but damn did it feel good. Dale Hunter has changed the style of play overnight and the boys have bought in. What I saw for 7 games was completely unlike Caps teams in recent years. Boston came in figuring to be the overwhelming favorite in physical play, but the Caps matched them throughout the series. Rookie net-minder Braden Holtby outplayed last year’s Vezina and Conn Smyth Trophy winner Tim Thomas. It’s the first time in NHL history that all 7 games in a series have been decided by 1 goal. They fought and played solid defense throughout the series, doing just enough offensively to take it to the brink.
When Joel Ward swiped at a rebound and the puck slid in the net, I let out a blood curdling scream. I proceeded to give my cousin the biggest man-hug a man can give another man. My voice quivered, I was shaking, nearly tearing up from pride.
In D. C., people of my generation haven’t had many teams to be proud of. We’re not a hot-bed for winning franchises and we didn’t grow up in an era of optimism and faith in D. C. sports. I woke up this morning with a feeling of happiness associated with my team that is unfamiliar to me and to this area. The Caps may not win the Cup this year. They may not even advance passed next round. But last night, that one moment when Joel Ward notched the game-winner, makes me realize that in spite of my history of playoff disappointments from a child to now or the trials we are put through as dedicated fans, it’s worth it. That one moment when I fell to my knees and screamed, the light feeling in my head, the hands shaking from excitement, makes it all worth it. Championship or not, I love this team. I’ve loved them more every year since my disappointment as an 8-year-old. No matter what happens, I’ll always live and die with the Washington Capitals. No matter what happens, I’m proud of these guys.