The moment was 44 years in the making.
The Capitals, the team that once skated a garbage can around the ice to celebrate the end of a 37-game road losing streak, that perfected the blown 3-1 playoff series lead, put all that heartbreak on ice in 2018 when they skated the real live Stanley Cup around T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
In so doing they captured Washington’s love and attention forever. It had been 14 years since D.C. United won an MLS Cup, but that was a 10-team league. It had been 26 years since the Redskins had won a Super Bowl and they hadn’t so much as reached an NFC title game since.
The Nationals arrived in 2005 and struggling for seven years to build a contender, often an embarrassment. The Wizards were wildly inconsistent, welcoming Michael Jordan before that experiment imploded, building a strong team with Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler before injuries and scandal ended that group’s chances. The John Wall and Bradley Beal teams fared better but still couldn’t get past the second round of the NBA playoffs.
It was always the Capitals who carried D.C. hopes for a championship, the Capitals who were a consistent playoff team for the better part of 35 years and reached the Stanley Cup Final in 1998. A total rebuild landed them a franchise legend in Alex Ovechkin and within four years they were a perennial contender again year after year.
And fans became invested. The Rock the Red era in the late 2000s captivated Washington. Capital One Arena sold out every night. Ovechkin’s goal-scoring exploits grew the game locally in a way that previous teams never could. But year after year they came up short in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
They lost to the rival Flyers in 2008 in overtime of Game 7 at home. The next year they dropped another Game 7 at home to the rival Penguins. In 2010, catastrophe struck when the Presidents’ Trophy winners lost another Game 7 at home to the No. 8 seed Montreal Canadiens.
Ensuing years would see more heartbreak in Tampa Bay and in New York. There were Game 7 losses at Madison Square Garden in 2012 and at Capital One Arena in 2013 and back at Madison Square Garden in 2015 – all to the rival Rangers. Fans began to suspect that the Capitals would never win, that it wasn’t meant to be.
The first and second-round losses took a mental toll on the players. Alex Semin sat on a dryer sobbing after the Montreal loss, one of the biggest NHL playoff upsets in two decades. Ovechkin could hardly peel off his uniform after the 2012 second-round loss to the Rangers.
And all of that was BEFORE the crushing second-round losses to the Penguins in 2016 and 2017. Both years the Capitals had won the Presidents’ Trophy again. Both years they watched Pittsburgh celebrate in the playoffs – an overtime win at PPG Paints Arena in Game 6 of the 2016 series and at Capital One Arena in 2017 again in a Game 7.
That offseason saw a mass exodus. Nate Schmidt was taken by the Vegas Golden Knights in the expansion draft. Marcus Johansson was traded for draft picks because of a salary-cap crunch. Karl Alzner and Justin left via free agency. Reinforcements were minimal. The window had closed shut with a depressing finality.
Maybe it really is always darkest before the dawn, though. The next year, coach Barry Trotz came within a few games of losing his job. Weakened, wounded by all the heartbreak, the Capitals were grieving. They had to let it go. At the very last moment they finally did, catching fire around Thanksgiving of the 2017-18 season.
There were struggles later in the year. Braden Holtby had a difficult February in goal. Philipp Grubauer was named the playoff starter. Washington won the Metropolitan Division again, which was impressive given the circumstances, but it didn’t look near as formidable as years past.
The Columbus Blue Jackets then won the first two games in the first round in Washington and the Capitals found themselves in overtime of Game 3. The stage was set for the final dagger. Lars Eller saved them with a goal in double overtime.
With Holtby back in goal and looking strong and the series suddenly in play still, the Capitals stifled the Blue Jackets in Game 4 and went on to win that series in six games. Yet another rematch with Pittsburgh started badly with a blown third-period lead in Game 1. But Washington responded. For the first time, the Capitals looked like the better team.
After taking a 3-2 series lead they went to Pittsburgh with a chance to eliminate the Penguins. Nobody wanted to see another Game 7 at home. Instead, with Tom Wilson suspended and Nicklas Backstrom out injured, unsung heroes Nathan Walker and Alex Chiasson combined to score the first goal, Holtby played brilliantly and Evgeny Kuznetsov stunned the Penguins with his breakaway goal in overtime of Game 6.
The only sound was the Capitals’ screams as they poured off the bench and slammed into the boards in celebration. As radio announcer John Walton implored: “It’s okay to believe!”
This time, scarred D.C. sports fans let themselves get carried away by the moment. The Capitals destroyed the Tampa Bay Lightning on the road to take a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference Final. They fell behind with three losses in a row, but this team seemed inoculated from pressure. Ovechkin and his teammates had been hurt too many times before. Trotz, learning his lesson from previous years, begged the crowd to believe in them, too.
From the upper level at Capital One Arena during Game 6, looking out across the Chinatown streets, you saw that fans had finally decided to embrace the moment and not fear the heartbreak. Thousands upon thousands crowded up and down 7th Street and G Street watching the games on giant television screens. The city had never come close to a collective moment like this since the Redskins’ last Super Bowl when hundreds of thousands gathered on the Mall for a championship celebration.
But that was a generation before. So many locals had known nothing but crushing loss or irrelevant mediocrity. Older Capitals fans stopped counting the number of times they’d been let down. That’s why that Stanley Cup resonates in a way even the Nationals’ incredible World Series title could not 18 months later.
Because the Capitals did it first and because they had decades of baggage weighing them down, a city divided too often – by race and income, by natives and newcomers, by rich and poor - came together in a way we hadn’t seen in so long.
The Capitals went to Tampa Bay and won Game 7. Ovechkin, of course, scored in the first minute. Then Washington dispatched the Vegas Golden Knights in five games and the ensuing celebration lasted for a week.
The players partied at MGM Casino. Back home, the fans partied into the wee hours of a June night. And they came together for a weekend bender where the Capitals shared their joy with the fans on a summer Saturday from Nationals Park to the Georgetown waterfront to Adams Morgan to the parade down Constitution Avenue the next Tuesday. No one who was there will ever forget it, the biggest DMV sports story in the first 20 years of the century. What will the next 20 years bring?