Column: It was OK to believe in the Caps after all

WASHINGTON — Covering sports on deadline, inevitably, means a lot of your preparation going to waste. There is the preparation born out of research, looking up and understanding history before the big moments happen so you are ready to put them in their proper perspective. There is preparation in the mundane, everyday process of sketching a game story as the action moves along, having it as polished as possible before the final second ticks away, the final out recorded.

Some remnants of that wasted prep hurt more than others. Somewhere, on aging laptops, lie auto-saved versions and WordPress drafts of the Nationals’ triumphant Game 5 victories, of the Wizards getting past the second round, of the Capitals beating the Penguins.

This is all to say that, after the Caps dropped the first two games of their first playoff round series to Columbus, we asked Ben Raby to write up a postmortem of the 2017-18 season to be ready to run upon the day they were eventually eliminated. It wasn’t pessimism; it wasn’t about what we thought or expected would happen. It’s just what you do. But unlike those wasted efforts in the prior paragraph, it will be the one he is most happy in his entire life to trash, never having seen the light of day.

Any sports season’s postmortem reads the same, in its essence. After the acknowledgment of failure to achieve the singular goal of a championship that sits in front of every team, there’s the bargaining, the lists of accomplishments meant to offset and soften that failure. Remember all the goals? All the saves? We had good times, too, didn’t we?

But they begin, inevitably, with the bad news, the description of how the season came to a screeching halt in an elimination game. This year’s Caps edition could have started with any number of narratives: the whimper of a first-round upset, a window slammed shut; the seemingly preordained failure at the hands of the Penguins; history repeating itself from 2003 against Tampa Bay, after going up 2-0; all that forgotten to history, just a footnote in the magical, historic run of the expansion Golden Knights.

But no, it was now, up 3-1 once again, the Capsiest of advantages, the series lead they’d blown a record five times. It was now in that Game 5, despite watching two leads disappear. It was now, coming back on the road in the third period. It was now, in the third year of a two-year window. It was now, in front of George McPhee, the GM who built the foundation in Washington, watching from the other side.

It was unlikely hero Devante Smith-Pelly, matching his season total for goals with seven in the playoffs, the last coming on a spectacular, diving affair to tie the game. More than anything, it was Alex Ovechkin setting a franchise record with 15 goals, coming up large when his team needed him the most, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy.

As Ovechkin lifted the Cup, he was asked to describe the physical feeling, but his response might as well have been about the emotional weight, the one we saw lift from his shoulders in a series of GIFs that kept on giving, all throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

“It’s very heavy,” he said. “But it’s light.”

There was a sense 2,400 miles away at the watch party inside Capital One Arena before the game started, even among those haunted by D.C. sports specters, that this time was different. Joe Gratton, from Olney, Md., was wearing a Nationals hat to go along with his Capitals shirt. He was sitting in left field for Game 5 in 2012. As a fan of both clubs, he understands the history.

“I was born in ‘91, so I’ve missed pretty much everything,” he said from his seats in the 400 level before the game. “I’m pretty pessimistic. But lately, I feel like there’s been this huge wave building now, and it’s like, all right, here we go, let’s do it.”

Margaret Hughes, from Frederick, Md., is the matriarch of a family of Caps die-hards. Her most painful memory boils down to one word.


Which year?

“Which year is a very good question. Any Penguins game,” she said.

But Hughes, too, felt the difference, that the turning point had already happened before the puck dropped Thursday night. It’s always easy to say, after the fact, what that turning point was. But with the outcome still in the balance, what did fans think?

“I’m part of the whole crew of when we beat Pittsburgh, that was a huge hurdle to get over,” said Gratton.

Despite her Penguins hatred, Hughes was unequivocal in what she believed was the moment, and even had a perfect name for it.

“The Holtby Grail,” she said, referring to Braden Holtby’s stupefying, physics-defying save late in a one-goal affair in Game 2, after which the Golden Knights never won again.

“That was it. I think that just psyched them all up when he pulled that off.”

You could point to any number of things, but however they got there, it was simply the Caps’ time. In the end, the club even paid for Metro to stay open, bucking the unfortunate trend they had started earlier in the playoffs, even though no game was played in D.C. Thursday night. The game didn’t go into overtime, but that late service still meant fans could revel and soak in every ounce of the moment they’ve waited so long to enjoy.

Some of us didn’t need it. Once the Cup had been hoisted and “We Are the Champions” played, I exited the arena with the fans, squeezing through the crowd of bodies, then threading my way through the thinning masses until I could think about how to get home. Riding the incredible wave of energy from the tens of thousands packed into and around the arena, I kept walking, and walking, and walking, a smattering of sweater-wearing revelers within view the whole way, nearly three miles, all the way to my front door, to finish the copy that will actually live to see the daylight. The story that says it was, in fact, OK to believe.

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