The Playoffs, Again

There are fanbases that would kill for this. Remember that, when the not-that-good Capitals inevitably fall in the first or second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, again. This postseason appearance is Washington’s sixth consecutive, a mark matched by only nine other teams, out of 60, in the 16-playoff team NBA and NHL.

Of course, the Capitals, along with the Atlanta Hawks, are the only team of the 10 not to even reach the conference finals, never to play for a banner.

The Capitals, though, are not the Hawks. The Hawks are NBATV fodder for a reason: They know their place, in a league where place is everything. Atlanta, in the Al Horford-Josh Smith era, has never lost a series to a lower-seeded team, and only once — and that’s counting a 4/5 “upset” — beat a higher-seeded team. There’s never been much doubt about how the Hawks’ season will end.

The Capitals appeared set to ride a linear trajectory to June glory, the way Pittsburgh and Chicago did in transforming young cores into Stanley Cup champions. There was the run to the Southeast title in 2008, the accession to elite status in 2009, the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010. Then, of course, there was Montreal — or, more devastatingly, the club’s reaction to Montreal, i.e., Bruce Boudreau playing a trap. Japers’ Rink has you covered in greater detail, but in summary: The Capitals’ front office has spent the last few years making the team worse. This isn’t just a new-age, advanced stats thing — the Capitals have gone from back-to-back No. 1 seeds to back-to-back final week playoff qualification.

It’s very hard to root for a team that explicitly rejected the group you fell for in the first place. My hockey identity became so wrapped up in the Capitals’, circa 2008-10, that to a certain degree I wasn’t just rooting for the Washington Professional Hockey Team, but what they represented: A fast-paced, offense-first club that drove xenophobes crazy. And when George McPhee essentially said, “You know what, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire — you were right,” well, what the hell am I supposed to do? How do you watch Dale Hunter stick Ovechkin and Alex Semin on the bench and play coin-flip hockey with Jay Beagle without a heavy dose of nostalgia, sadness, and, of course, bitter anger? (Granted, Adam Oates has reversed course to an extent, but this isn’t 2009, either.)

The worst part is, if the Capitals do win, we’ll hear how it’s because they fired Boudreau and let Semin walk. And Capitals’ players will probably say it, too, because they’re trained enough in the media lingo to know you can’t tell ESPN, “Yeah, my mindset was exactly the same as in 2010, we just hit fewer posts this time.” When teams win playoff games, nowadays, it’s because they’ve learned from some previous moral or psychological failing, like having too many Russians on the team.

These Capitals have already risen, peaked, and fallen. Now they’re just … around, in the playoffs mostly because their division is terrible and because it’s the NHL, where making the playoffs isn’t the hardest thing in the world. Sure, there’s less pressure on them, but that’s mostly because everyone accepted this team has “failed” and moved on to another target. And, no, that’s not in some way a good thing. I want all the fucking pressure you can scrounge up. Teams face pressure because they’re contenders and because they matter. Pressure is a good thing.

But to get back to the Hawks, a far-too maligned team, in my opinion — things could be worse. The playoffs, even in leagues where more than half the teams make the playoffs, are still an incredibly pulsating and involved experience. For all the JaVale McGee .gifs and fantasy drafts and sports peripheral entertainment, this is why we watch sports, for those playoff moments when everything stops and it’s just you, your TV screen, and your favorite team, win or go home. As long as the Capitals keep giving me that — and, incredibly, the Capitals have played six Game 7’s in the last five years (with all but one decided by one goal) — I can’t complain too much.

And the Capitals still have Alex Ovechkin. Russian Machine Never Breakssubhead now depressingly mentions only “Alex Ovechkin and his Russian bros,” because all his Russian bros are spread across the country, no longer playing for the Capitals, but he’s still here, and perhaps the best player in hockey once again. Since Ovechkin claimed his second MVP award in 2009 (and he may have earned a third in 2010, if not for a specious suspension), the latest figures anointed as the one to lead D.C. sports from its 20 years in the desert have included John Wall, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and of course, Robert Griffin III. For now, at least, they’re all still pretenders to the throne. They will, hopefully, get there, to a point where playoff games are a given and championships are an expectation. But Ovechkin’s already been there, and especially in Washington, that has to mean something.

Oates certainly appears to like Ovechkin, so we’re at least free from the Dale Hunter Experience and the mess of contradictions that surrounded last season’s playoff run/series of coinflips. But … puck possession isn’t just some fancy concept Neil Greenberg invented. This awesome graphic doesn’t lie.

I’d rather put my faith in the numbers than hope we’re the outlier. And it’d be far easier to hope we’re the outlier if we didn’t have to be.

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