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IMHO: Sorry Vegas, but True Love Requires Suffering First

  • Washington Capitals celebrate their Eastern Conference win 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Wednesday, May 23, 2018 in Tampa, Fla. (Dirk Shadd/Tampa Bay Times/TNS)

  • Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) celebrates after scoring in the first period of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals between Washington and Tampa Bay. Must credit: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

  • Capitals fans celebrate a second goal by Washington during a free viewing party on the jumbotron at the Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday night. Must credit: Photo by Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

  • Washington Capitals right wing Devante Smith-Pelly (25) celebrates with left wing Jakub Vrana after the Capitals defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 during Game 7 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals hockey playoff series Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

  • Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) holds the Prince of Wales trophy after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 during Game 7 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals hockey playoff series Wednesday, May 23, 2018, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)



Valley News Sports Editor
Sunday, May 27, 2018

Congratulations, Las Vegas. Welcome to the Stanley Cup Final.

Thousands, probably millions, of NHL fans have waited a long time to see their teams get this far. Toronto’s beloved Maple Leafs haven’t sniffed this rare air since 1967. St. Louis has had the Blues — as well as the blues — since their boys lost the last of their three straight Finals visits to the Bruins and the flying Bobby Orr in 1970.

Buffalo and Vancouver just completed their 48th years without hoisting Lord Stanley’s chalice. The Golden Knights’ Final foe, the Washington Capitals, are seeking their first NHL title since their 1974 inception, having amassed an impressive pile of playoff wreckage, much of it self-wrought, over those 44 campaigns.

I feel your pain, Knights of the iced table. You’ve been waiting for this moment for … um, nine months.

OK. My face is about to crack. I like the Knights. I like the way they play hockey. I like how the city has responded to finally having its own franchise in one of North America’s major professional sports leagues.

But this long-suffering fan stuff? Because you haven’t had a playoff run to enjoy since the city was founded 113 years ago? I mean, the desert sun might nicely preserve residents for long lives, but seriously?

I’m sorry, Vegas. I’m not buying.

Here’s why. The Stanley Cup was first awarded in 1893 (12 years before the city of Las Vegas arrived), and the NHL dealt it out for the first time in 1917 (12 years after the city was born). Its history is unrivaled in all of professional sport. No league requires its teams to play as many as 110 games — 82 in the regular season, up to 28 more in the playoffs — before crowning one of them a champion. It’s hard to do. It should be.

Long-term suffering is what the NHL campaign is all about.

As a lifelong Capitals fan, I don’t claim to have it worse than anyone else, but it’s been an ordeal. About this time last year, I used this space to document my lifelong addiction/affliction/attraction to this frustrating franchise. Anyone who seriously follows hockey knows the Capitals’ history, at least in passing.

If the Knights represent the best first-year NHL expansion team ever, the 1974-75 Caps were the worst. Hands. Down. In an 80-game season, Washington won exactly eight times. Seven came at the long-since-leveled Capital Centre. As an 11-year-old, I saw three of those wins personally out of five visits to the arena. I may still hold that season’s record for best witness win percentage.

It took a long time for the Caps to improve. D.C. didn’t enjoy its first playoff game until Year 9; heck, the New York Islanders had a Stanley Cup in their possession after eight seasons. (By the way, their Cup Final wait is at 34 years and counting, Vegas.) The Caps’ first conference Final didn’t arrive until Year 16. Washington’s only Stanley Cup Final appearance, in a four-game sweep by Detroit, is 20 years in the franchise’s rear-view mirror.

Go ahead. Name the last Golden Knights fan who can relate to watching his (or her) team lose a quadruple-overtime Game 7 to the Isles on TV at 2 in the morning. Or another four-overtime failure, to hated Pittsburgh. Or seen the Knights blow two-game series leads 10 times in 20 years. Or any other level of memorable meltdown.

I’ll wait. What’s another 44 years to me?

The Caps set themselves up to do it again just last week, ripping Tampa Bay twice in their Florida hockey hotbed before handing three games back. Then, as they have all spring long, these Capitals shrugged off their miserable history and threw back-to-back shutouts to book their flight to Vegas, baby.

I love watching Alex Ovechkin in the regular season; I’m starting to love it in the postseason as he becomes the leader management always hoped he’d be. Tom Wilson had matured, mostly, into an effective battering ram. Braden Holtby appears to have regained his goaltending swagger. The third and fourth lines grind. The power play, when the Caps move their feet, is a joy to watch. They seem, at least occasionally, to have learned how to win battles in the corners and in front of the net, a postseason necessity.

Even if Washington doesn’t win the Stanley Cup, it’s been a satisfying year. (If they lose, however, please give me a week to recover.)

Contrary to the naysayers, the NHL didn’t set Vegas up for immediate success, but the league’s current status helped. The NHL salary cap didn’t come into being until 2005, five years after the last expansion; with the Knights’ arrival, the 30 other squads, for the first time, had to consider finances as well as talent in deciding whom to protect from the expansion draft. Vegas had the best field of candidates from which to pick in NHL history.

Without those conditions, the Knights likely don’t get Marc-Andre Fleury, James Neal, fleet-of-foot Jonathan Marchessault or many of the guys who make up the current roster. They wouldn’t have been 1974-75 Capitals bad — no one ever will be, unfortunately — but they wouldn’t be warming up for tonight, either.

The Knights’ general manager, George McPhee, built most of the Washington rosters that flopped the past 20 years; he’s done a very good job in Vegas. The team is quick, backchecks like demons and has a future hall-of-famer as its goaltending foundation. The Knights could very well win the Stanley Cup.

But they shouldn’t. After all, love involves some level of anguish. Vegas hockey fans, you haven’t suffered nearly enough yet.

Greg Fennell can be reached, nervously chewing his fingernails, at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.