It doesn’t really matter. It’s just a conference final appearance. The Capitals are only halfway through the postseason, eight wins down, eight tough wins still left to earn for the only ending that’ll leave them truly satisfied. And each of the four other teams still alive are better bets to go the distance.
It matters so much. The Capitals’ 2-1 win on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s breakaway OT goal to beat Pittsburgh in six games ended not just a second-round series but a curse, one of sports’ true, deep-rooted, excruciating curses. Say it again: the Caps made it to the conference final. The Caps beat the Penguins. If it matters to the players, and it matters to the fans, it objectively matters.
And just how much did it matter to the players?
Let us read the litany, one final time.
- The Caps were 1-9 against the Penguins in the playoffs in franchise history, and hadn’t beaten them since 1994.
- The Caps had appeared in the second round six times in 10 years, and had lost every single one of those series.
- A Washington D.C. team hadn’t advanced to its sport’s final four since the Caps did it in 1998, 20 long years ago.
This ... this wasn’t supposed to be the group that finally did it. We are in year three of the Caps’ two-year window, as proclaimed by the GM. They racked up about as unspectacular 105-point season as you can imagine, winning the Metro but no one’s confidence. (“We flew under the radar a little bit,” Jay Beagle admitted, “and that took the pressure off.”) Last night they were without the injured Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky, and the suspended Tom Wilson. That’s three of D.C.’s top-six forwards out; there were five rookies in the lineup, including two making their career playoff debuts. (And indeed, Barry Trotz said everyone, including Ovechkin, was not allowed to shirk checking duties in Game 6 because the shorthanded Caps couldn’t afford to get into a shootout, perhaps explaining why the game felt so sloggy.)
The underdog role suited this team—even if the fatally flawed Penguins weren’t specifically favorites, history certainly was. Trotz said the “painful losses” of the last two years, in which the Penguins eliminated the favored Caps en route to a pair of Stanley Cups, forged the team’s core into something better suited to withstand the weight of narrative.
“I don’t want to lie: It tasted a little bit better,” said Kuznetsov. “But I never focus on the history. I just focus on the game.”
Easy for him to say. No one in that locker room or that front office has suffered the full lengths of these various droughts, dating back to the days of Peter Bondra and the Cap Centre. Only the fans have. There’s a fascinating-to-me debate to be had about whether a fanbase can ever be said to have “earned” something, since fandom is fundamentally a passive activity. But suffering doesn’t feel very passive to me. I don’t know where I ultimately come down on this question, but nights like last night do make me think it’s possible for fans to earn their joy. Surely, at the very least, Caps fans have earned the right to treat this as so much more than a second-round win.
Here is something no one has ever seen in the Crosby-Ovechkin era: the Penguins and Capitals shaking hands, with the Capitals moving on.
“We’re only halfway there,” Barry Trotz said, his first clause summing up what this means and his second clause capturing what it means, “but we beat the Pittsburgh Penguins.”
They’re only halfway there. But, to put it a very different way: They’re halfway there.