Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 14, 2018

Rockin’ The Red In DC

A NOTE TO READERS: The usual Sunday post will be delayed until Monday. Have a great weekend and as always, thanks for reading!

In the parlance of our electoral politics, there is no voting jurisdiction in the country colored a deeper blue than the nation’s capital. Residents of Washington, D.C. have no voting representative in either house of Congress, but they do have the minimum of three votes in the Electoral College, and every four years the Democratic nominee for President can put them in his or her column without having to spend a dime on local advertising or an hour campaigning in Georgetown or Anacostia.

Despite that lopsided political persuasion and as unlikely as the voting preference of the locals might make it seem, one can only hope that no one within a thirty-mile radius of the Washington Monument has an urge to buy a red shirt any time soon, because surely every clothing store that close to D.C. is completely sold out of that color. That assumption seems entirely reasonable given that on Tuesday, the sidewalks lining a mile long stretch of Constitution Avenue and the broad swath of greenspace that is the National Mall at 7th Street all appeared to be a pulsing, living, and utterly joyous, sea of red.

Fans by the hundreds of thousands swarmed into downtown to cheer the Washington Capitals, who captured the first Stanley Cup in the team’s forty-three-year history one week ago with a come from behind 4-3 victory over the Las Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Finals. The National Park Service stopped providing crowd estimates for events in D.C. long ago, but the local Transit Authority announced that more than 840,000 people rode the subway system on Tuesday, almost forty percent higher than the daily average and the highest ridership since the day of the Women’s March in January 2017.

While the parade didn’t start until late morning, fans started gathering at first light, staking out prime positions along the route and in front of the stage set up on the Mall for the championship rally. By the time the double-decker buses carrying the players were ready to roll, the red-shirted celebrants were packed eight and ten deep on both sides of Constitution Avenue, and peering down from the rooftops of nearby buildings.

For those who were simply D.C. sports fans, it was the first chance to honor a local champion since the NFL franchise captured Super Bowl XXVI in 1992, more than a quarter century ago. For those whose first love was hockey, the faithful who had followed the Caps for years, it was a day of catharsis, a chance to at long last release all the emotion built up over so many seasons that ended in defeat, disappointment, and doubt.

Like most expansion franchises the story of the Capitals’ first few years is one of failure. In the team’s first season of 1974-75 just eight contests on the eighty game schedule ended with a Washington victory. It was nine seasons before the Capitals posted a winning record and qualified for the playoffs. Having finally done so the team became consistently competitive, though the Caps were still not one of the NHL’s elite squads. It was another seven years before Washington reached the Conference Finals, and it wasn’t until 1998 that the Capitals actually played for the Stanley Cup, losing to Detroit four games to none.

Then came a down period, with just three playoff berths in the next eight seasons. The tail end of that interregnum coincided with the 2005 arrival of Alex Ovechkin, the generational Russian talent who remains the face of the franchise. His first appearance in a Capitals’ sweater came less than three weeks after his twentieth birthday, and the young left wing quickly gave D.C. fans a taste of what was to come, netting two goals in a win over Columbus. Since that night Ovechkin has scored another 605 regular season goals and 61 more in the playoffs, and the Capitals have moved into the top tier of the league’s franchises.

Ovechkin has been the NHL’s leading goal scorer seven times and led in total scoring in 2008. He’s won three MVP Awards and is a nine-time All-Star. During his time in Washington the Capitals have won eight division titles and three Presidents’ Trophies, given to the team with the best regular season record. But time and again, after displaying such dominance during the regular season, the Caps and Ovechkin foundered in the playoffs. After winning their first Presidents’ Trophy at the end of the 2009-10 season, they were ushered out of the playoffs in the very first round by the eighth seed Canadiens. In nine trips to the postseason with Ovechkin on the roster prior to this year, Washington had never advanced past the second round.

At Capital One Arena, this season began with more modest expectations than most. Certainly the team was expected to be good, but after some key losses to free agency and in the expansion draft, Washington wasn’t a popular pick for a deep playoff run. The Nashville Predators and Tampa Bay Lightning were the choice of many pundits, and there were those who talked of Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins winning a third championship in a row. While the Capitals again topped their division, across the league seven teams finished with better records.

Perhaps because they were free from the heavy weight of high hopes, the Capitals’ skaters brought a new level of resilience to this postseason. Washington lost the first two games of the opening round to Columbus, but rather than fold the Capitals stormed back to win four straight. They lost their second-round opener to the Penguins, but again rallied to finally beat their old playoff nemesis and advance to their first Conference Final since 1998. In that penultimate round the Caps went up two games to none on the Lightning, only to drop three games in a row. Facing elimination, Washington played its finest hockey of the entire year, completely shutting down the prolific Tampa Bay offense in two straight shutouts.

The Capitals then dropped Game One of the Finals to the unlikeliest opponent of all, the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. But then Braden Holtby made a season-changing save to cement the win in Game Two, and Washington never looked back. When the last horn sounded the Capitals had cruised through the Finals in five games, outscoring the Golden Knights 16-8 while sweeping the last four. Ovechkin, who led all playoff skaters with fifteen goals, was named the MVP of the postseason, while Holtby had the lowest goals against average and teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov led all scorers with thirty-two points.

The championship run was, in short, a total team effort. And while the loudest cheers on Tuesday were for Ovechkin, there were plenty of plaudits for all the players, head coach Barry Trotz, GM Brian MacLellan, and for popular owner Ted Leonsis. All on the day a city celebrated the end of a long title drought, a team rejoiced over its first ever championship, a superstar gladly left the top of the list of best players to have never won a title, and the bluest city in the country turned deeply, passionately, and proudly, red.

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Responses

  1. A nice summary of the Caps, Mike. It’s nice to see people in D.C. excited about something positive, for a change.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. Of course it being DC, that lasted about 2 minutes!

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.5527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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