Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Caps Win First Playoff Series in 11 Years, Will Face Hated Pittsburgh in Next Round

This is what I wrote one year ago, after the Washington Capitals lost Game 7 of last year's first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers after fighting back from a 3-games-to-1 deficit:
I guess I got so caught up in the excitement of having playoff hockey around again that I forgot to mention a few things. First, that as exhilarating and fun as the playoffs can be, they can be equally as devastating when you lose. In a game filled with dubious calls, including one which gifted Philadelphia a power play goal in OT, to lose at home after clawing all the way back from a 3-1 series deficit... well, it just sucked, quite frankly.

The other thing I neglected to mention, probably out of fear of bad karma, was that the words "Playoffs" and "Disappointment" have gone hand in hand throughout the Capitals' history. Apart from one magical run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 (which we lost, 4-games-to-0, to the Detroit Red Wings), Washington was known for blowing the big games. I thought it would be different this time because those teams of the past never had Alex Ovechkin, but I found myself reliving the same familiar memories from elementary school of a first or second round exit for the Caps.

Last night's 2-1 win over the New York Rangers effectively saw playoff hockey karma pay back the Capitals and their fans after dealing us such a devastating circumstance 12 months ago.

Being in the building with JJ, I can assure you that an entire fan base released all the pent-up frustration and anxiety from last year's loss as soon as Sergei Federov - the elder statesman - scored with 4:59 remaining in the 3rd period, and that release of emotion lasted until the final whistle. To find ourselves back in a 3-1 hole in the first round, after witnessing what happened last year, not to mention watching as overtime approached with the teams knotted at 1-1, well it felt like déjà vu all over again.

However, the stakes were even higher this year. Last year's loss was so crushing since we were so, so close to advancing after nearly not even making the playoffs. This year, though, there were a ton more expectations for this team to succeed, to build on the foundation and the experiences of last year and ascend to that next level of greatness. A first round loss this year would have hurt more. Staring that reality in the face for three consecutive games and staving it off is a truly heroic feat.

Lost in all the madness of this win and our upcoming opponents, the Pittsburgh Penguins, is the fact that the Caps haven't advanced past the first round since we went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. In essence, last night's win wasn't just about exorcising the demons of last year; it represented a return to form 11 years in the making. It's one thing to make the playoffs on a regular basis, but it basically means squat if you can't advance even one round.

With that being said, we haven't won the Stanley Cup yet. While it's great to win a playoff series, that isn't enough to consider this season a success. Missing the playoffs this year would not have been just inexcusable, it was not even a possibility for this team, as stacked as it is. Losing in the first round would have been an utter failure, without question. This team is good enough to play for the Eastern Conference title, which would make a second round loss even a disappointment.

I will write an entirely different post about the Caps-Pens heated, albeit lopsided, playoff history. But if you're going to truly measure yourself against the best teams in the league, you want to travel through the most difficult road possible to glory. Playing New Jersey would have been nice and would have undoubtedly helped our chance of advancing to the conference finals. But if this season really is about redemption, then we have bigger demons to overcome than just a first round exit and the biggest and baddest demon of them all is the Penguins in the playoffs.

I will never forget last night's game. The incredible noise inside the building. The jubilation on F Street and all around Chinatown after the game. But the Capitals' playoff journey continues on Saturday at 1 p.m. and, in my opinion, our real test of mettle well and truly begins.

Bring it on.

1 comment:

  1. Just a thought; this is a huge break for DC teams, who have struggled to get past the first round in recent years

    Wizards, 3 1st round losses since '05
    United, after winning the Cup in 2004, bounced out in 2005, 2007
    Redskins....well they were close

    Nats...out of the first year?

    and who can forget the Washington