I’m from Cleveland, so I understand pain. The kind of pain that makes you wake up in the middle of the night and stare at the ceiling for an hour. I’m 55 years old, and until the Cavs won the NBA title last year I had reconciled myself to not living long enough to see a Cleveland team win a world championship. The Cavs? They would fade into irrelevance the day LeBron retired. The Indians? There would always be a team with a bigger payroll to frustrate them. The Browns? Come on.
So when I see another fan base suffer, I feel their pain. I don’t mean just the pain of losing, because, let’s face it, somebody loses every time a game is played. I’m talking about the pain of getting your hopes built up over and over again, convincing yourself that this is finally the year, and then having your heart ripped out, tossed on the ground, and stomped on by someone who is smiling at your suffering.
I’m talking about the Washington Capitals.
The Capitals, after a season in which they ran roughshod over the entire NHL, find themselves tied 3-3 with the Penguins. They did pull out game three after sidelining Sidney Crosby with a vicious crosscheck, but this is familiar territory for the Caps, who also won the President’s Trophy in 2016, only to lose to the Penguins in the conference semifinals. In the past ten years, in fact, the Capitals have been knocked out prior to the conference finals by a lower seeded team seven times.
Think about that. Not only does that track record make Capitals fans queasy every time a playoff series starts to go south, it means that whatever success the team has in the regular season automatically makes their fans miserable. No matter how marvelous the team played this season, there had to be that feeling of dread, sort of like eating Indian food, where no matter how delicious it is, you know that what comes next might be excruciating.
This collapse may be even more painful to watch. Alex Ovechkin, the linchpin of the latest run, will be 32 before next season starts and only scored 69 points this season, so his days as an elite player may be coming to an end. Seven other Capitals will be over thirty, including mainstays T.J. Oshie, Brooks Orpik, and Justin Williams. The Caps also will have seven free agents this offseason, including Oshie, Williams, and Kevin Shattenkirk. In a league with a hard salary cap and no Bird rights, keeping everyone is impossible, so it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the core of this team is running out of chances.
That may have been the reasoning behind what looked like a panic move in game two against the Penguins, when coach Barry Trotz pulled goalie Braden Holtby after a bad second period in which he gave up three goals. I’ve never been a fan of flip-flopping goalies in the playoffs. If you make a change, it’s because you no longer trust the first guy, at which point you need to be prepared to ride the second guy the rest of the playoffs. If you do anything else, you’re just messing with their heads, which is the last thing you want to do with goalies. The Caps, though, aren’t going anywhere without Holtby, who seemed solid in game three until giving up two goals in the final two minutes to tie the game, so it’s hard to fathom what Trotz was thinking by pulling him.
It’s also hard to fathom how the Capitals thought Trotz might be the answer for their playoff drought. He’s a solid fundamental coach who overachieves with less talented teams, especially when he ran an expansion team in Nashville, but his playoff track record indicates he may not be the guy to get the most out of an elite roster, at least in the postseason, when series turn on matchups and strategy. Trotz made the playoffs seven times in Nashville, but only won two playoffs series, and lost twice in the first round when he had home ice advantage. Add that to what he has done in three postseasons with the Capitals, and it’s not hard to imagine that if there’s a big shakeup in Washington this offseason, Trotz might be part of it.
With Crosby and Conner Sheary having been held out for a time, a path has opened for the Capitals to win the series and go back to Washington with the curse beaten back. But would anything short of a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals rid the Caps of the cloud that has hovered over their franchise for forty years? More importantly, if they don’t win the Cup this year, will enough of the core of the roster remain intact to compete for Cups while Alex Ovechkin is still young enough to contribute?