WASHINGTON (AP) – As checkered playoff histories go, the Washington Capitals haven’t been around nearly as long as some NHL teams. The track is still long and sad.
There was Pat Lafontaine of the Islanders beating them in the four-overtime “Easter Epic” back in 1987. Esa Tikkanen missing a wide-open net in the Stanley Cup Final loss to Detroit in 1998. Heck, losing nine of 11 postseason meetings against the Pittsburgh Penguins alone is filled to the brim with gut-wrenching letdowns.
The puck finally seems to be bouncing the right way for the Capitals, who built a 3-1 lead in the Final against Vegas after some rare postseason fortune. Lars Eller’s double-overtime winner off his right skate kept his team out of a 3-0 hole in the first round. Then came a cathartic, six-game elimination of the Penguins behind a patchwork lineup full of rookies. Against the Golden Knights, Braden Holtby made the stick save of a lifetime to lock up a Game 2 win and opponent James Neal clanked a shot off the post in Game 4, staring at as much net as Tikkanen had 20 years ago.
It’s as though all the bad breaks from the previous 42 seasons of Washington Capitals hockey are being erased — or at least somewhat forgotten — in a run that could deliver the franchise’s first title.
“It’s like the franchise was star-struck,” former general manager David Poile said. “They’ve had all these really good teams, all of these opportunities that appeared that this could be the year that they could win playoff rounds and compete for the Cup or win the Stanley Cup. … It just feels like — as Barry Trotz would say — the hockey gods have evened things out.”
Before this spring, the Capitals had made it past the second round of the playoffs just twice and reached the final once, when Tikkanen and Co. were swept by the Red Wings. Abe and Irene Pollin, the longtime owners of the Capitals and NBA’s Bullets/Wizards, had to learn how to handle losing.
“My husband and I had developed a habit of when we lost, we would go to eat frozen custard to help us deal with the loss,” Irene Pollin recalled.
There were a lot of chances for custard: Teams leading 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won 91 percent of the time (276-28). Of those 28, the Capitals have blown such a lead five times — the most of any team.
Winning just one game against the expansion Golden Knights already made this the most successful season in the history of a franchise that began in 1974-75. It was, by the way, the worst first-year team in NHL history (8-67-5) and became a punchline for postseason failures that only worsened in the Alex Ovechkin era.
For many of the players who have been through it all, the strong showing against Vegas is long overdue.
“I’m part of history. I’m part of not winning a Cup here for a long time,” retired winger Peter Bondra said. “I don’t even play, but I feel like a part of this team, believe it or not. It’s just something in it. Obviously, I play here for 14 years, I grew up here with the team as a player, my family grew up here. Seeing this would be amazing if it happens.”
It’s almost amazing this team even exists. After missing the playoffs in their first eight seasons, there was a “Save the Caps” campaign in 1982 just to keep them around and in Washington.
“We couldn’t sell tickets,” said Irene Pollin, now 93. “We went to Montreal to fight for the franchise, So for three days and three nights we were up and I was in a nightgown typing letters to the president and everybody to have them send letters to the league because they kept saying, ‘Washington is a southern city, it’ll never be a hockey town.'”
Abe Pollin that summer hired Poile as his general manager. When the 33-year-old executive asked for a three-year contract, Pollin agreed but only after telling Poile he’d better do well in the first season or the franchise might fold.
Less than two weeks later, Poile changed the course of the franchise by acquiring eventual Hall of Fame defenseman Rod Langway. Washington made the playoffs in all 13 seasons Poile in charge but couldn’t break through.
“We had to play against some of the great teams ever in the NHL: We had to go against the Islanders who won four straight, the Rangers were always on the border, Pittsburgh when Mario (Lemieux) came in,” Langway said. “We challenged them, we competed with them, but we couldn’t get over the hump.”
That became the Capitals’ unwelcome hallmark. Plenty of times an improbable play ended a promising run, whether it was the Rangers’ Pierre Larouche beating Pete Peeters from a sharp angle in 1986 or Lafontaine’s shot through traffic for the Game 7 winner a year later early on Easter morning in nearby Landover, Maryland.
“To me, that is sort of what happened, the epitome of what has happened to this franchise,” winger-turned-broadcaster Craig Laughlin said. “We didn’t get those type of bounces. It seemed like every other team did but we didn’t.”
That continued to Tikkanen in 1998 and into the “Rock the Red” era with Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. They lost in overtime of Game 7 in 2008 on a Flyers power play, in 2009 on home ice when the Penguins blew them out, in 2010 when Canadiens goaltender Jaroslav Halak stopped 41 of 42 shots in Game 7, in 2012 when a high-sticking double-minor penalty put them down 3-2 to the Rangers, and in 2017 when they had no response in a explicable Game 7 loss to — of course — the Penguins.
“That’s one of the things that you’ll look back on, that I’ll look back on, is which years I think that we had a legitimate chance and it just didn’t go our way and the years that we just didn’t deserve it,” said defenseman Karl Alzner, who was a first-round pick of the Capitals, became a core player for six first- or second-round exits and left in free agency last offseason. “We had bad matchups and injuries at bad times, and that’s something to look back on.”
Just like in 2010, when Washington looked unstoppable, the 2016 and 2017 teams won the Presidents’ Trophy as the best team in the regular season. But this year was supposed to be a step-back season and the third consecutive division title was a bit of a surprise. The Capitals fell behind Columbus 2-0 in the first round but them something seemed different when the puck pinballed off a defender and Eller and in to win Game 3.
“Usually that Eller goal would’ve been the opposition scoring on us and it would’ve been devastating and they’d be up 3-0 and we’d lose the series,” said Laughlin, now a TV color commentator who along with team President Dick Patrick is among the longest-lasting members of the organization. “That started the kind of change around and turnaround, exactly that goal, because that just doesn’t happen with the Capitals in the playoffs.”
Many expected the NHL’s biggest surprise this season, Vegas, to continue its amazing run in its first year. Instead, the seemingly charmed Golden Knights have struggled against the rugged Capitals.
Langway is already beaming with pride and said he has felt the same from fellow alumni. Alzner is happy for friends but there is a tinge of sadness, too.
“I’ve seen how it’s all kind of gone down and tweaking with the team and trying to figure out the right mix,” Alzner said. “You helped build the foundation a bit, but without actually getting your name on the Cup and the ring and stuff, it’s a bit empty.”
Long-suffering Capitals fans have celebrated on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery and filled the rink for viewing parties of road playoff games. Knowing what they have been through and wanting the best for coach Barry Trotz and others, Poile hopes Washington can finish at the top — the standard he set as the target more than 35 years ago.
“Finally. With us being part of the Caps for 15 years, I’m really happy for them,” Poile said. “End of the story is they get the greatest chance ever right now being one game away from winning the Cup.”
(© Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)