By Allan Muir
Sometimes it's just plain awful to be a fan.
We're not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury -- or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the seventh in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists -- or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the Washington Capitals, who have mastered the dark art of inflating great hopes and cruelly crushing them.
It's been 40 years since the Capitals entered the league, and they've gone 40 years without winning the Stanley Cup. Only Toronto, St. Louis, Vancouver and Buffalo have endured longer stretches (47 years) without drinking from the old mug. But it's not just the absence of a parade that defines the torment of this team's fans. It's the way that Washington goes about losing. The Caps are to the playoffs what a miler is to a marathon, quick starters who can grab a series lead but lack the stamina to see it through to the finish. Look at their track record -- has any team blown as many 3-1 series leads? They're the Lucy van Pelt of the NHL, constantly putting the football down in front of their diehards only to yank it away at the worst possible moment. Their heartbreakers of the past -- the formidable 1980s and '90s teams of Rod Langway, Mike Gartner, Scott Stevens, Dino Ciccarelli, Peter Bondra and Adam Oates -- always seem to have the misfortune of continually running into divisional playoff buzzsaws like the dynastic Islanders (who even in their leaner years seemed to have Washington's number) and Mario Lemieux's two-time Cup champion Penguins.
Most notorious moments
• The Penguins: Eight times the Capitals have lined up against their reviled rivals from Pittsburgh in the postseason. Seven times they've come up short. Twice, they've blown a 3-1 series lead (1992, 1995). On two other occasions they coughed up a 2-0 advantage. It's a spirit-crushing mismatch, one that always seems to knock the Caps down just when they dare to dream of something better. Take the 2009 meeting, the first (and only) to feature Alex Ovechkin head-to-head against Sidney Crosby. It was a terrific series -- highlighted by a legendary Game 2 that saw both Sid and Ovie record hat tricks in a 4-3 Washington win -- with three games needing overtime and five of the first six decided by a single goal. But then came Game 7 at the Verizon Center, where the Pens outshot the Caps 16-5 in the first period and got goals from Crosby and Craig Adams just eight seconds apart on the way to a 6-2 win and yet another cruel dismemberment of Washington's playoff dreams.
• Jaroslav freaking Halak: The 2009-10 Capitals might have been the greatest team in franchise history, a Presidents' Trophy-winning juggernaut powered by Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and a still-potent Mike Green. They seemed destined for Cup glory ... until they ran into a red-hot Halak. After the Canadiens fell behind Washington 3-1 in their first-round series, the Habs' goalkeeper put his outgunned team on his back and staged a show for the ages. Over the next three games, the desperate Capitals fired 134 shots on Halak. He stopped 131 of them -- a .978 save percentage -- to lead the Canadiens to three consecutive victories and a stunning series victory.
• The Easter Epic: If there's one defining Capitals collapse, this is it. After blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Islanders in the 1987 Patrick Division semi-final, Washington coughed up a 2-1 third period lead in Game 7, allowing New York to extend the clincher to OT. Terrific play from keepers Bob Mason and Kelly Hrudey prevented the two teams from solving matters in the first 20 minutes of extra time so they went to another ... and another ... and another, before a deflected point blast from the Islanders' Pat LaFontaine eluded Mason to end the longest Game 7 in history at 68:47 of OT.
• The 2004 Yard Sale: There's no denying that the hard decisions made in 2004 were instrumental in the rebuild that brought Ovechkin to the Caps and returned the organization to relevance, but that doesn't make the suffering that season any less painful. Recognizing that attempts to buy his way to the top were a dismal failure, GM George McPhee decided to purge his roster of veterans, including captain Steve Konowalchuk, all-time leading scorer Peter Bondra, and the NHL's top scorer Robert Lang (the first time a player who was topping the charts in that department had been traded in season). Those players were followed out the door by Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar, Michael Nylander and Mike Grier, leaving an AHL-caliber squad to finish 23-46-10 and sending fans streaming to the exits in disgust.
•"Tikkanen ... right in ... missed the open net!" : It was 1998, during Washington's only trip to the Cup finals, when Esa Tikkanen authored the moment that, more than any other, has come to define this team's postseason misery. After dropping Game 1 in Detroit, the Caps were grimly holding on to a 4-3 lead midway through the third period of Game 2 when Tikkanen was presented with a chance to put the Red Wings away. He drove the net and faked a slapper that left goalie Chris Osgood sprawled wildly out of position. With the game on his stick, Tikkanen danced around the fallen keeper and, somehow shot the puck wide right of the yawning cage. Minutes later, Doug Brown tied the game and sent it to overtime, prompting this remark from ESPN's Bill Clement: "Should the Washington Capitals not win this game and the Detroit Red Wings go on to win the Stanley Cup, that miss could be the defining moment and the turning point of this entire series." He was right on the money. Kris Draper won the this one for the Wings in OT, and Detroit took the next two games in Washington to sweep the series and claim the Cup. The Caps haven't returned to the finals since.
Stumbling out of the Olympic break with a 6-4-1 mark left Washington with a discouraging 20.9 percent chance to earn an invite to the 2013-14 postseason, according to Sportclubstats.com. The Capitals may yet make the cut -- an 8-2-2 record down the stretch would give them a 59 percent chance at a wild card berth -- but even their most die-hard fans have to recognize they'd just be chum in the water for the league's big fish.
In the system
Two of the team's top-five prospects -- Evgeny Kuznetsov (the No. 26 pick in 2010) and Tom Wilson (No. 16 in '12) -- already are paying dividends at the NHL level. There'll be a place for Kuznetsov's flash and Wilson's rambunctious energy in Washington's top six for years to come. Andre Burakovsky (No. 23, '13) has answered questions about his defensive game in a strong rookie season with Erie (OHL) and looks the part of a first-line scoring winger, maybe as soon as '15-16. Riley Barber (No. 167, '12) has addressed concerns about his size by bulking up to 200 pounds and continues to develop his scoring touch with the Miami RedHawks (NCHC). He looks like a solid third-line winger with second line upside. Winger Stanislav Galiev (No. 86, '10) has taken a step back this year, struggling with problems both new (injuries) and familiar (consistency). His skill level is tantalizing, especially on the power play, but there are more doubters than ever about his ability to make an impact at the NHL level.
On defense, the organization lacks a truly high-end prospect, but has several with the potential to fit nicely in second- or third-pair roles. Connor Carrick (No. 137, 2012). is a high risk/high reward player. He's quick and fearless with the puck, but has a tendency to try to do too much. More than anything, his reads need improvement. Madison Bowey (No. 53, '13) was known for being a smart, mobile puck mover, but this year he's added some finish to his repertoire, setting a Kelowna (WHL) record for goals by a defenseman with 21. Nate Schmidt (free agent) has struggled during his first pro season in Hershey as the offensive game that earned him a contract has gone south. The Caps still like his skating and puck-moving skills. Christian Djoos (No. 195, '12) is a terrific puck mover, but he's approaching his 20th birthday and reportedly hasn't topped 160 pounds. Hard to believe he can play in the NHL at that size. Philipp Grubauer (No. 112, '10) has impressed in yo-yo duty with the Caps this season, and the former Memorial Cup winner could assume backup duties full-time next season in Washington.
Better Days Ahead?
Whether this season ends with a playoff berth or not, there are plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the future of this team. The Capitals are blessed with a true generational talent in Ovechkin and have a legitimate number one center in Nicklas Backstrom. There are some solid complementary pieces up front and a couple of bedrock defensemen in John Carlson and Karl Alzner. And there are legitimate NHL prospects in the pipeline.
But if you're more of a glass half empty-type -- and who could blame a Caps fan for that? -- it's fair to wonder if this team will ever get over the hump. The stewardship of McPhee deserves serious scrutiny, with a long list of failed decisions (trading Filip Forsberg, anyone?) and the inability to address obvious issues (the team's 23rd ranked defense, for example) calling his future into question. Goaltending remains a concern, with Braden Holtby yet to establish himself as a legitimate No. 1 and Halak a questionable (and possibly temporary) upgrade. The play of blueliner Mike Green continues to be an issue -- either trade him or get him a reliable defensive-minded partner who can cover for his obvious shortcomings. And it's fair to ask if Ovechkin, for all his talent, is the right player to lead this group.
All told, the Capitals feel like a team that's gotten as far as it's going to get under this regime. It's time for a change at the top, time to bring in someone with new ideas and no loyalties, to honestly assess where they are at and get them moving forward again.
Are you a Capitals fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.