The Washington Capitals' history of playoff disappointments began even before they ever reached the postseason.
The proof is hanging in the closet in Bruce Peters' home in Waldorf, Maryland, about 30 miles away from where the Presidents' Trophy winners will face the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 on Wednesday night with a spot in the Eastern Conference finals at stake.
The T-shirt, purchased at the long-since demolished Capital Centre, remains in impeccable condition. On it is a cartoon image of an unnamed Washington player with a devil sitting over his shoulder. Across the bottom it reads: "Playoffs 1981 -- Paid Hell To Get Here."
One problem. The Capitals didn't actually make the playoffs that spring, finishing last in the Patrick Division instead.
So much for truth in advertising.
Not that it mattered to Peters. An 8-year-old at the time, he was already hooked on the game and the guys in the red, white and blue sweaters. And he's stayed that way. Through the Easter Epic and the Stanley Caps. Through Yvon Labre and Rod Langway. Peter Bondra and Olaf Kolzig. Jaromir Jagr (whoops) and Alex Ovechkin. Through Esa Tikkanen's botched open net in Game 2 of the 1998 Stanley Cup Final. Through blown 3-1 leads and Game 7s that almost always ended with a handshake line as the other guys moved on. Through 43 years and four wins -- four -- beyond the second round.
So Peters will watch Wednesday night, possibly in person if he can swing it. He will rock the red. And he will believe once more.
"At least the Caps have given you a glimmer of hope, something to root for," he said. "Whether it be the Presidents' Trophy or a Game 7 overtime win or whatever."
He clings to those moments -- Dale Hunter's Game 7 breakaway against Ron Hextall in 1988, or Joel Ward's winner against Boston in 2012. Finding a way to make the conference finals for just the third time ever at the expense of the Stanley Cup champion and longtime nemesis Penguins -- who are 3-0 in winner-take-all games against Washington -- would just be the icing.
"The Penguins always seemed to get the bounce," Peters said.
Wednesday night offers a chance for the bounces to go the other way. If they don't, all those failures -- the ones Peters say "kind of blur together" -- will add another painful chapter.
So let's not miss an opportunity to stick our thumb on the wound just one more time.
The Easter Epic
Technically, Game 7 of the 1987 Patrick Division semifinals began on April 18. It didn't end until around 2 a.m. on April 19, when Pat LaFontaine's turnaround snapshot from the point threaded through a sea of bodies and beat Bob Mason 8:47 into the fourth overtime. In the stands, a 13-year-old Peters sat in stunned (and exhausted) disbelief.
"It wasn't like a hard shot, you would think a routine stop, just trickled and found its way," he said. "You play seven periods of hockey, wear and tear just gets you."
The Nedved Game
While Washington's 1996 first-round series against Pittsburgh lasted just six games, in many ways it's symbolic of the club's inability to close. The Capitals won the first two games at the Igloo and had a chance to take a 3-1 lead in Game 4. The Penguins lost Mario Lemieux early in the game after getting in a fight. Washington's Joe Juneau botched a penalty shot. Pittsburgh's Petr Nedved won with a shot in the fourth overtime that could have been called "Easter Epic 2.0." The win tied the series. Pittsburgh advanced in six games.
"That one's up there," Peters said. "Way up there."
Sid vs. Ovi Part I
The NHL finally got the matchup it was waiting four years for when Ovechkin and Penguins star Sidney Crosby met in the second round of the 2009 playoffs. The two exchanged hat tricks in Game 2 and Washington did something very un-Capital-like by winning an elimination game on the road to force a Game 7. The breakthrough moment never came. Marc-Andre Fleury stoned Ovechkin early, and the Penguins ripped off four goals in the first 23 minutes and never looked back.
"They just kind of fell apart," Peters said.
The Capitals responded a year after falling to the Penguins by posting the NHL's best record for the first time ever. They had home ice in the playoffs. It lasted all of seven games. Washington went up 3-1, then saw its best season ever come undone at the hand of unheralded Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak. The team that scored a season-high 318 goals managed three over the final three games and lost 2-1 in Game 7 at home.
Gone in a New York Minute
Less than two minutes from closing out the New York Rangers in Game 5 in 2015, the Capitals allowed New York's Chris Kreider to tie it late in regulation. The Rangers won quickly in overtime, and Henrik Lundqvist lifted them to two more wins. Another hot goalie. Another abrupt ending.
Through it all, Peters -- so hooked on the game as a kid his parents literally bought enough equipment to outfit all the kids in the neighborhood so he could play -- remained optimistic. He is once again, renewed by Washington's rally in Game 5 and dominant performance in Game 6.
If the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Cavaliers can finally do it, why can't the Caps?
"Does it feel different?" he said. "I don't know. Eventually it's going to turn."