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IMHO: A Capital Offense Rooting for D.C.’s NHL Team

  • Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, left, waits to greet Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, who is talking with Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) after Game 7 in an NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinal, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Washington. The Penguins won 2-0. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • The Verizon Center is set up before Game 7 in an NHL Stanley Cup Eastern Conference semifinal hockey game between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Wednesday, May 10, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

  • FILE - In this May 13, 2013, file photo, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30), from Sweden, greets Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), from Russia, after Game 7 of a first-round NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoff hockey series in Washington. The Rangers won 5-0. The Capitals face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of a second-round series Wednesday, May 10. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

  • FILE - This April 28, 2010 file photo shows Montreal Canadiens goalie Jaroslav Halak, of Slovakia, celebrating the team's 2-1 win as Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, skates off after Game 7 of the NHL hockey playoff series in Washington. Game 7 may be the most exciting phrase in sports to a lot of people, but not the Washington Capitals. The Capitals have lost six of nine times they’ve faced Game 7 in the Alex Ovechkin era. Wednesday, May 10, 2017 is the chance for the Capitals to confront its Game 7 demons as it hosts the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. (AP Photo/Nick Wass, file)

  • FILE - In this May 13, 2015, file photo, the New York Rangers celebrate the game winning goal by center Derek Stepan (21) against the Washington Capitals as Capitals goalie Braden Holtby looks at the puck in the net in overtime of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals during the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs in New York. Game 7 may be the most exciting phrase in sports to a lot of people, but not the Washington Capitals. The Capitals have lost six of nine times they’ve faced Game 7 in the Alex Ovechkin era. Wednesday, May 10, 2017 is the chance for the Capitals to confront its Game 7 demons as it hosts the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)



Valley News Sports Editor
Thursday, May 11, 2017

Coming to a television near you, this message from GEICO:

“If you’re the Washington Capitals, you spend an entire season playing scintillating hockey. Then you get to the playoffs, string your fans along and lose to the same team over and over and over again. It’s what you do.”

For a rare change, the darkness hovering over the District of Columbia today has nothing to do with the current White House occupant. The Capitals have choked again, seventh-game losers to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Wednesday’s second-round series finale.

The Caps are the reason I became a hockey fan. My family started sharing two season tickets through a business for which my mother worked when the team arrived in 1974, when I was 11. Over eight years, I grew into a screaming, rabid, occasionally — OK, frequently — foul-mouthed fanatic. My parents grew patient. And the Caps stunk, setting still-standing NHL records for regular-season futility and missing the postseason every year.

Then my parents divorced, I left for college, we gave up the tickets … and the Capitals started making the playoffs. They’ve qualified for the postseason in 26 of the 34 years since.

But just when it appears they’re ready to cross the threshold from good to great, the Caps trip on the blue line. They have a gag reflex to rival any housecat. When the going gets tough, the Caps get a tee time.

Sound familiar, Red Sox fans? This is how you sounded until 2004.

They’re cursed. (You had Babe Ruth; I have Pat LaFontaine.) They always lose in the big moments. (You have 1946, 1967, 1986, 2003; I have … well, an ever-growing list.) They’ll never win a championship in my lifetime. (You were wrong; I’m getting closer to being right by the day, by every increase in my blood pressure readings.)

If hockey is a hammer, the Capitals are the nail. Sure, you can build something with a handful of them, but you’re still getting pounded on the head again and again and again to reach that point.

In 42 years of NHL life, Washington has advanced past the postseason second round just twice, and both could be considered flukes. In 1990, a heretofore no-name forward, John Druce, went from an eight-goal scorer in 45 regular-season games to Wayne Gretzky, potting 14 in 15 postseason contests and leading the Caps to the conference finals before the Bruins turned Druce back into a pumpkin with a four-game sweep.

Eight years later, Washington made its only Stanley Cup Final appearance as the East’s fourth seed. Nos. 1, 2 and 3 all lost early, the Caps waltzed through and were appropriately dispatched in four games by the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings.

They’ve sniffed success many times since. And every time, the Capitals have turned up their noses.

Like Red Sox fans pre-Papi, I grumble a lot about the Caps now. Thirty years of living in New England will do that to a sports-addled person. Staying up until 2 a.m. on Easter Sunday, 1987, to watch the Caps lose a quadruple-overtime game to a LaFontaine goal — being warned by my tired parents to stop yelling at the TV in the process — will do that to a person. Witnessing another four-overtime failure to, of course, the Penguins in ’96 will contribute, too.

As will going MIA against the Pens in a second-round seventh game in ’09. As will letting Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak morph into Jacques Plante to hand back a 3-1 series lead a year later. As will blowing a seventh-game lead in the closing minutes to the Rangers in ’15.

As will Wednesday night.

Ben Lovejoy had a front-row seat — hell, a spot on the bench — to a Washington fan’s torment during his playing time with the Penguins. I once wore a Capitals T-shirt to interview him (the same one that I’m wearing as I write this, in fact) at his Dartmouth hockey camp; he found it less than humorous.

During a break in his daylong Stanley Cup errand around the Upper Valley last summer, I regaled him with my life of Capital punishment, some of which involved him. The former Dartmouth College defenseman kindly told me he believed the Capitals were too good to not win the Cup someday.

Oh, Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben, Ben. You just don’t understand. You probably never will.

As I age, I become less inclined to throw rubber objects at my TVs, and my expletive-laden outbursts become less frequent. (My wife and neighbors will disagree.) The wide-eyed wonder of watching Washington wash out has been transferred to my sister’s house in Virginia. During one game of the Pittsburgh series, it was her sleep-deprived teenage daughter who came downstairs late at night to admonish the adult to keep quiet.

Sis supports the Capitals wholeheartedly and positively. Her older brother is losing his grip. I should be more forgiving. How long has it been since the St. Louis Blues won anything? The Toronto Maple Leafs? The Ottawa Senators? The Vancouver Canucks? Canada? Other fans have it worse, right?

I’m less sure today than I once was. The best regular-season team in the NHL two years running has failed again. To the same team. Again. In game 7. Again. At home. Again.

When you’re the Washington Capitals, it’s what you do.

Greg Fennell can be consoled at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.