Saturday, June 9, 2018

A Long Time Coming, Part One

So now they sit atop the hill. It was a long time coming for the District of Columbia's hockey franchise, but here they are: Washington Capitals, Stanley Cup Champions. Right when everyone had really given up on 'em for once and for all.

A story like this deserves some telling, and to tell it right you have to start from the beginning, so let's go.

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The Capitals first season was 1974-75, when they and the Kansas City Scouts (now known as the New Jersey Devils) joined the NHL as expansion teams. That was back when expansion teams really were expansion teams, meaning they had to start with scraps and crumbs, and with no way of avoiding a long struggle before they could rise even to the level of "does not suck" -- but even with that as your point of reference, the Caps were still historically atrocious in their early years.

Their first season saw them finish with a record of 8-67-5 while enduring a 17-game losing streak and dropping thirty-seven straight on the road. Their second saw them surrender almost five goals per game while limping to the finish line with an 11-59-10 record, at one point going 25 straight games without a win.

The Caps' futility continued throughout the rest of the 1970's, which put them at a competitive disadvantage not just against other NHL teams when trying to earn victories, but against their hometown basketball team when trying to earn a claim on some of the entertainment dollars that residents had in their wallets.

The late 1970's were when the Washington Bullets made back to back trips to the NBA Finals and won the NBA title in 1978. Both franchises were owned by Abe Pollin, and needless to say, it was easier for him to put butts in the seats for Bullets games than for Caps games.

Pollin remained committed to making hockey work in the U.S. capital even when relocation rumors became red hot, and in 1982, the year "Jack and Diane" and "Africa" topped the charts, he made the pivotal decision of hiring David Poille to be the team's GM. In Poille's first transaction he traded for Rod Langway, one of the best stay-at-home defensemen the league has ever seen.

Langway (along with Brian Engblom, who was acquired in the same trade and now does TV color commentary for my Tampa Bay Lightning!) dramatically reduced the Capitals' goals-against average and made them competitive. Concurrent with that, previously drafted forwards Mike Gartner and Bobby Carpenter evolved into productive scorers, and in 1983 the team made its first ever playoff appearance. They were eliminated by the New York Islanders, who would then go on to win the last Cup of their epic dynasty, but there was obviously no shame in that.

They went on to make the playoffs 15 years in a row. An argument can be made that they did not have a lot to show for that 15-year run -- beginning your playoff appearances right when the dynastic Islanders were handing the baton over to the dynastic Oilers, who eight years later would hand it over to the Lemieux-Jagr Penguins, is not a way to establish yourself as a realistic title contender -- but the Caps did make it as deep as the Prince of Wales Conference Final in 1990, and in the decade following that conference final they became one of the league's more entertaining teams to watch.

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The 1990's saw the franchise bring in significant firepower from around the globe, including Slovakian wingers Peter Bondra and Richard Zednik and Russian blueliner Sergei Gonchar (all of whom started their NHL careers with the Caps) plus American defenseman Phil Housley and Canadian forwards Adam Oates and Joe Juneau (all of whom were acquired after already establishing themselves with other franchises).

Bondra spent 14 years with the team, during which he tallied 472 goals and 353 assists and led the NHL in goals for the 1997-98 season. He was a five-time All-Star and to this day holds the franchise record for hat tricks and short-handed goals.

But arguably the biggest addition to the Capitals during the 1990's was the ultimate man without a country: Goaltender Olaf Kolzig, aka Olie the Goalie. Sure, almost everybody who ever watched him play will tell you that Kolzig's from Germany, but in reality he has never, ever lived there.

Kolzig was born in South Africa, to parents who had been born in Germany and retained their German citizenship. When he was a toddler they moved to Denmark and then to Canada, where he began playing hockey at the age of four.

His father worked for Westin Hotels in a position that forced him to keep relocating -- so much so that by he time Kolzig graduated from high school in Union Bay, British Columbia, he had moved 25 times in his 18 years of life. Almost all of those moves were within Canada, which would seem to make him a Canadian, but he never applied for citizenship and that fact enabled him to use a German passport and to play for Germany in international tournaments.

One of the world's best goalies of the 1990's and early 2000's, Kolzig set 13 franchise records that still stand and he won both the Vezina Trophy and King Clancy Memorial Trophy. With him owning the net and the players mentioned above making things happen elsewhere on the ice, the Capitals were fun to watch and appeared on lots of highlight reels. In 1998 they made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, only to get swept by the Red Wings juggernaut.

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Seemingly unfazed by that SCF sweep, the Capitals organization kept plugging along for several years during which it kept much of its core both intact and competitive. After the calendar flipped into the next decade (this century!) the Caps added two blue chip Czechs to their already blue chip roster: The mulleted one himself, Jaromir Jagr, plus sharp-shooting winger Robert Lang. They also brought in Lithuanian centerman Dainius Zubrus, giving themselves impressive depth down the middle.

Although not Cup favorites like Detroit or Colorado, they were talented enough that they were "in the conversation" and every year it felt like they could make another deep run. However, that run never materialized and in both 2000 and 2001 they were eliminated in the first round by -- remember this -- the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then they missed the playoffs altogether in 2002.

They made an impressive rebound and returned to the post-season in 2003, facing the Lightning in the first round. The Caps won the first two games in Tampa (I was in attendance at Game One) and then, back on home ice, went to overtime in Game Three while trying to take a commanding-as-can-be 3-0 series lead. But 2:29 into overtime, Tampa Bay's Vinny Lecavalier scored on a rebound to make the series 2-1, and then the Bolts ran the table to win the series 4-2. The decisive Game Six was played on Washington's own ice and ended when Martin St. Louis roofed the winner over Kolzig's left arm four minutes into the third overtime.

As the following season unfolded, the Capitals organization concluded that the roster it had built was not going to win a Cup, and conceded to that conclusion by dismantling its key parts and freeing up money to rebuild. On January 23, 2004, Jagr was traded to the Rangers, then on February 18th Bondra was dealt to Ottawa. Within 15 days of that, Lang had been shipped to Detroit and Gonchar to Boston, with Lang's trade marking the first (and still only) time in NHL history that the league's leading scorer got traded mid-season.

On June 7th of that year, Tampa Bay won the Stanley Cup less than 14 months after beating the Capitals for their first-ever playoff series win... and 19 days after Tampa Bay won the Cup, the 2004 NHL Entry Draft was held and the Capitals, blessed with the top pick from having won the draft lottery, set the course for their future by selecting an 18-year-old Muscovite named Alexander Mikhailovich Ovechkin.

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Ovechkin's hockey greatness is, well, great, so obviously he is not your normal Moscow-raised Russian. But when you look at his family, you will see that he is really not your normal Moscow-raised Russian.

His father Mikhail was a highly regarded soccer player. His mother, Tatyana, was an elite basketball player who helped lead Team USSR to back-to-back Olympic gold medals and six European Championships, and she now runs Russia's national women's basketball program. In other words, Alex Ovechkin's family is sports royalty in the land of his birth -- and in that particular land, being sports royalty comes with an enormous amount of pressure imposed on you by the state.

It was a big deal when the Caps made Ovechkin the #1 pick, and he has proceeded to prove that everyone who called him a can't-miss prospect was absolutely correct. Not yet 33, he is an 11-time All-Star who has led the NHL in goals seven times, including this season. He has thrice been named the league's most valuable player as voted by the media, and thrice named its most outstanding player as voted by the players themselves. Despite playing in the golden age of NHL goaltending, he has rung up nine seasons of 40 or more goals, including seven seasons of 50+ and one season when he scored 65. He won the hardest shot challenge at this year's All-Star Weekend Skills Competition (his clocked in at 101.3 miles per hour) in addition to winning the competition's breakaway challenge in 2008, 2009, and 2011.

All of which goes to illustrate that Ovechkin, often called Ovie, was the perfect franchise player with whom to start a rebuild and around whom to build a title contender. And there is no doubt that the Capitals organization has done everything it could to achieve that goal in the 14 years since they drafted him.

In 2006 they drafted Nicklas Backstrom. Both of them are still with the team and still at the top of their games, with Backstrom having averaged nearly a point per game across his 11 seasons. There have been seven seasons in which he did not miss a single game, and this year he missed only one.

Other top flight players brought in during the team's "Ovechkin era" include -- just to name a few, and in no particular order -- Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Karl Alzner, Brooks Laich, John Carlson, Braden Holtby, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams.

They drafted well, traded well, became perennial contenders, and turned in lots of damn fine seasons. Five times they had the best record in the Eastern Conference and four times the best record in the NHL. They were considered the front-runners for the Cup on more than one occasion, and a legit contender for it on almost every other occasion.

But those bastards known as the hockey gods kept knocking them over when the playoffs rolled around.

In a game of centimeters, the Caps always seemed to end up with their shots going a centimeter off target and the bounces deflecting the wrong way. No matter how good they were, once the playoffs rolled around they could never get past the second round.

My personal favorite post-season flameout by the Caps occurred in 2011, when they were the Eastern Conference's top seed but got swept by fifth-seeded Tampa Bay in the second round. But obviously that's my rooting interest kicking in.

Perhaps I could bring up the year before, 2010, when they had the NHL's best record only to get upset by Montreal in Round One. But even that doesn't seem central enough to the story, for the biggest truths concerning Washington post-season flameouts center inevitably around the franchise from the City of Bridges; namely, the Pittsburgh Penguins.

It has to be said that Washington's playoff struggles against Pittsburgh date all the way back to 1991, when they first met in the post-season and the Pens defeated the Caps in five games (in the second round, of course) en route to winning their first Stanley Cup. The following year they met again, this time in the first round, and the Caps were able to push it to a seventh game but the Pens prevailed and again went on to win the Cup. Between 1991 and 2001, they played seven different playoff series against each other with the Caps winning just one.

The most memorable game of that entire stretch (for me, at least) was Game Four of their 1996 series. Washington had won the first two games in Pittsburgh, followed by Pittsburgh taking Game Three in Washington, so Game Four was already on slate to be pivotal -- and then it wound up being epic, going all the way into the final minute of the fourth overtime before Pittsburgh's Petr Nedved potted the winner. The Pens went on to take the next two and won the series 4-2.

After 2001 the two franchises went eight years without facing each other in the playoffs, and it was during that interim that the Capitals drafted Ovechkin and the Penguins drafted Sidney Crosby. It was in 2009 (in the second round, of course) that they finally met again for another playoff donnybrook. The Caps were the #2 seed and the Pens #4, and Ovechkin had finished the season as the NHL's leading goal scorer with 56, which was 23 more than Crosby and 10 more than second-place Jeff Carter. In the total points race he beat out Crosby 110 to 103 (though they finished 2-3 behind Evgeni Malkin's 113).

Washington won the first two contests. Game Two was especially notable because Ovie and Crosby both had hat tricks, and Ovie's tally with 4:38 left proved to be the winner. But eventually the Penguins came back to win the series in seven games, three of which went to overtime, and then they went on to win the Cup.

The 2015-16 season ended with the Capitals having far and away the best record in the NHL and being the favorites to win it all. But they met the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, and of course the Penguins beat them, and of course the Penguins went on to win the Cup.

Then the 2016-17 season also ended with the Capitals having the league's best record by a wide margin and being favored to win it all. But again they met the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs, and of course the Penguins beat them, and of course the Penguins went on to win the Cup.

That meant that Washington had played Pittsburgh in ten different post-season series and lost nine of them. It also meant that Pittsburgh had five Stanley Cups in franchise history while Washington had none, and that all five of Pittsburgh's Cups had come after eliminating Washington en route.

Between the end of that 2016-17 season and the beginning of the 2017-18 season that just concluded, a combination of salary cap concerns and age compelled the Caps to part ways with key veterans Karl Alzner, Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, and Kevin Shattenkirk, just one year after they had parted ways with Nate Schmidt. Some people even began to wonder if it was worth it for the team to keep Ovechkin around, given his age and salary (never mind that he was but one season removed from a 50-goal campaign that earned him his sixth Rocket Richard Trophy).

The smart money guys claimed that the Caps had missed their chance, that they lacked championship mettle, that all those missed golden opportunities had caused so many problems to crop up between their ears that the problems could never be overcome.

But the Caps' players and coaches disagreed with the smart money guys, and resolved to make the 2017-18 season different than all the ones that came before.

To be continued...

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