The Caps were still up by a goal after Braden Holtby’s incredible blunder in the third period of Saturday’s Game 3, but when it happened—the very instant Tomáš Nosek guided Holtby’s blind, panicked, incomprehensibly ill-advised give-away into the empty net—a vision of the next great gut-wrenching Capitals collapse clicked into place in my mind with such clarity and certainty that I would’ve felt comfortable pre-writing a past-tense chronology of events right then and there.
This impression that the Caps were truly fucked was not helped by an ensuing Caps power play where they mostly failed to get the puck out of their zone, and a casual viewer might’ve assumed the Golden Knights were the team with the man advantage. The Caps lucked into the power play on an iffy call against Deryk Engelland, but then spent it slamming into each other and turning the puck over and retreating, and generally looking like a team that had had all its confidence snuffed in one nightmare sequence.
Had things gone differently, it’s possible Holtby’s boner would’ve been remembered in the same category as, say, Loris Karius’s strikingly similar blunder in the Champions League final, or even J.R. Smith’s all-time blunder in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. That’s the dismal future that seemed absolutely certain Saturday night—that a 2-0 lead in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals would be remembered as the high-water mark of this era of Caps hockey, and the single defining moment of its inevitable demise would always be a goalie panicking and dumping the puck on a trajectory where the two closest sticks were in the hands of opposing players, and in front of his own abandoned net.
Because I am a DC sports fan—and, to be fair, because of this team’s specific history—Devante Smith-Pelly’s goal, to put the Caps up 3-1, was so unexpected as to be disorienting. I was certain the Caps were going to lose, and then suddenly they’d rebounded ferociously and snatched all the fight and belief out of the Golden Knights. I suppose it will fully sink in at some point that this team’s fate is no more guided by its history than a coin flip is determined by the results of an earlier coin flip, but the specific sensation I have this morning is of tentatively unspooling a high-flying kite more and more and more, guided by a new and alien-seeming glimmer of hope that whatever wind is grabbing it is powerful enough even to overcome my clumsy handling and the kite’s flimsy design.
Maybe that’s what it feels like to be a fan of a team that has postseason momentum? The forces at play here have no interest in your tidings of doom, buddy. I still can’t shake the feeling that the Caps will fuck this up, especially when I see video of delirious Caps fans climbing light poles around DC because of a Game 3 win at home. Then there’s this video, which truly tempts fate:
Caps fans have mobilized around that “It’s Okay to Believe” slogan, which tells you all you need to know about how much Caps fans are used to being Charlie Brown lining up a kick with Lucy as the holder. The Caps could still fuck this up! They probably will! But Smith-Pelly’s goal felt like a specific rebuttal to the notion that they are primed to fuck it up, and that alone is a special feeling. Maybe maybe maybe maybe maybe it’s okay to believe. Maybe!