WASHINGTON — At long last, D.C. has a conference finalist in a major professional sport. The Washington Capitals finally vanquished their hated nemesis, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to advance to their first Eastern Conference Final in 20 years. The entire District is still celebrating like it’s 1999 (dammit, Prince … you missed it by one year).
I hate to be a buzzkill while the jubilation is still so fresh, but ending Pittsburgh’s 24-year stranglehold on the rivalry doesn’t mean much if this is as far as the Capitals go.
That’s a real possibility, too. I’m just as stoked as anyone to see Alex Ovechkin in the conference finals for the first time. But the fact of the matter is … well, Alex Ovechkin is in the conference finals for the first time. Not to mention, Ovie is there with a pretty banged up Capitals squad going up against a Tampa Bay Lightning team that’s been this far in the playoffs three of the last four years. I’m no puckhead, but methinks the Caps winning this series would be a bit of an upset.
What that means for the D.C. sports landscape as a whole is that, yes, the suffering and torment are on hold for the moment, with the promise that this could all be over soon. But by no means is it actually over yet.
Remember the 2004-05 Washington Wizards? They broke through to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1982 and infamously sold celebratory T-shirts commemorating the so-called accomplishment. They went on to get swept by the Miami Heat and have returned to the conference semifinals just three times since.
How about the 2005 Washington Redskins? They caught fire at the end of the regular season to finish 10-6 and we all thought Joe Gibbs was about to work his championship magic again in a wide open NFC. But the ‘Skins only won a low-scoring eyesore at Tampa Bay in the Wild Card round of the playoffs before ultimately losing on the road to a beatable Seattle team.
Each of those playoff runs featured premature celebration of a Washington team “finally breaking through.” That’s part of why D.C. gets so little credit as a sports town — we’re too willing to keep the bar low. Our love for our underachieving teams is so blind and deep, we’ll celebrate the tiniest of accomplishments because so few of us remember when actual championships were the standard.
Remember the narrative about Cleveland all those years? It was a place to be pitied, one that notoriously struggled through 50 years of championship futility. It’s not like they didn’t have a few years where their teams got deep in the playoffs; the Cavs had previously been to the Finals, the Indians were two outs from a World Series title in ’97, and the Browns got to the AFC title game three times in the 1980s — all of which only added to the heartbreak.
But don’t mistake relevant for successful. Cleveland’s drought clock hadn’t truly reset to zero until the Cavaliers stunned the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.
So while the Capitals have justified the direction they’ve charted over the last few years, they haven’t broken their — or, on a larger scale, Washington’s — curse just yet. Only clutching Lord Stanley’s Cup accomplishes that.
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