PITTSBURGH – Barry Trotz is wrong.
The Capitals head coach said earlier this season that his team needed to own its checkered postseason history. In the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Trotz has tacked in another direction.
“In [the Washington] market, it seems that everybody brings up the past, and it’s funny, because the past, a lot of times, it’s not relevant,” Trotz said on Sunday. “It’s just a story for [reporters]. It’s really not relevant to the group, to me, because every group changes from year to year.”
Trotz should know better. Stories matter. Yes, even the painful ones. To brush aside 42 years of Caps history is foolish. Of course the current players aren’t to blame for most of those postseason failures. It shouldn’t affect them one bit on the ice tonight against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 at CONSOL Energy Center with the season again on the line.
But Trotz is missing the entire point. The heartbreak is the thing here. You can’t gloss over that. It’s woven into the identity of the people who care about this team the most: The fans who stay up late to watch West Coast games, who invest thousands of dollars in tickets, who buy jerseys, who walk out of Verizon Center every spring wondering when, at long last, it will be their time to celebrate.
They remember Pat LaFontaine and the Easter Epic. And Rod Langway’s Achilles’ tendon. They still hear the sad cadence of Ron Weber as he twice recounted blown 3-1 series leads to the powerhouse Penguins. That’s happened to them now five times, including last year against the Rangers – an NHL record.
There are four-overtimes losses. Yes, plural. And Marty St. Louis began the Alex Ovechkin era with his triple-overtime goal at Verizon Center to end a 2003 series with Tampa Bay and start a massive rebuilding project. Even during Ovechkin’s own brilliant career, “Halaked” became a verb and the Caps have been eliminated on home ice in a Game 7 four times.
Is anything worth this emotional investment? Because this isn’t a fairy tale. Washington isn’t guaranteed a Stanley Cup. The Chicago Cubs, after all, haven’t won a World Series since 1908. Sometimes the losing just goes on and on and on. Look elsewhere for tired takes about “choking dogs”. The great tragedy of the Caps isn’t that they fail in the playoffs every spring. It’s that they come so damn close to winning.
Trotz’s current players have demons of their own anyway. Ovechkin has never been past the second round. Washington’s record in Game 7s during the Ovechkin era is 3-6. In large measure that’s not his fault other than maybe a quiet playoff series or two. He’s one of the greatest playoff goal scorers ever.
But it is part of his story. And when he’s old and fully gray and long retired from the sport, these losses won’t weigh on Ovechkin any less than they do the fans who invest so much into this team themselves. The opportunities are growing short now. Pat LaFontaine might not matter to Alex Ovechkin. But Jaro Halak and Derek Stepan and Henrik Lundqvist and Joffrey Lupul and Sidney Crosby sure as hell do.
Yes, hockey is arbitrary in its outcomes. Yes, narratives are often dumb. Jay Beagle hit a post in overtime last spring. Henrik Lundqvist was beat cold. If that shot goes in do the Caps go on to win a title? Maybe. But they didn’t. And so the misery piles up.
Tonight is an opportunity to keep the season alive and force one more decisive Game 7 at home. Maybe that coin flip will go Washington’s way for once. One thing is certain, though: The joy Caps fans will feel if and when Washington wins a Stanley Cup will be infused by that past and all the painful endings that came before. The players can put it aside, true. Trotz is probably right about that. But you can’t say it doesn’t matter.
It matters more than anything.
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