For 20 years, all Washington sports fans have wanted is a seat at the table. Not just the opportunity to compete for a world championship, a spot in the playoffs, as all of their teams have accomplished that much and lately quite often. But a real chance, being there at the end when so few teams are left that a title shot could actually come into focus.
For most cities, reaching the semifinals of a given sport would be just another step in a road they have traveled before. The expectation to get there has been established. For D.C., it's unfamiliar territory. There are full-grown adults from the region who have no idea what the experience of playing for the chance to play for a major sports championship is like.
With the Capitals' win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of their second-round playoff series on Monday night, Washington advanced to the Eastern Conference Final, and in doing so have already gone further than any other D.C. major sports team (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) since 1998. That makes this arguably the most important win, at least relative to the team's sport, for a D.C. team in two decades.
Not since the 1997-98 Capitals had a Washington team reached the final four in a major sport. It was the longest drought among North American cities with at least three major sports teams. Of cities with two or more major sports teams, only Cincinnati has waited longer than D.C.
Those 1997-98 Caps, in fact, were the only D.C. team to get that far since the 1992 Redskins, who won the Super Bowl. Among cities with three major sports teams, only Minneapolis-St. Paul has waited longer for a world championship. They last had one with the Twins, who captured the 1991 World Series just months before the Redskins won it all.
The 20-year wait itself has been difficult for many, but the true devil is in the details, how heartbreakingly close D.C. teams have been. The Nationals got closer than any of them in 2012 when they were one strike away from putting down the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS.
The Cardinals set an MLB record that night by coming back from six runs down in a postseason do-or-die game. Closer Drew Storen surrendered the go-ahead runs and will forever live in the memory of D.C. sports fans - along with Pete Kozma - because of it.
Instead of celebrating an NLCS berth, the Nats were left to answer questions about how they let it slip away. Plastic protective covering, set up for a champagne shower, draped the lockers around them. Stephen Strasburg, who was shut down that September because of his Tommy John surgery, was consoled by pitching coach Steve McCatty as tears streamed down his face.
The Nats have been one win away three times in total, including in 2017 when they lost to the Chicago Cubs in five games. Game 5 featured a meltdown by Max Scherzer, arguably the best pitcher in baseball, and Jayson Werth, the team's most experienced player, losing a flyball in the lights.
The Capitals can relate. They were 100 seconds away in Game 5 of the 2015 NHL Playoffs. They were up 3-1 in their series against the New York Rangers, less than two minutes from reaching the Eastern Conference Final. But the series and ultimately their season slipped away and into the catching glove of goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
The Capitals were also one win away in 2009, 2012 and last May with Game 7s against the Penguins, Rangers and Penguins again. The 2009 loss to Pittsburgh was a blowout. Seven times since 1998 have they reached the second round with a chance to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference Final and they were 0-6 in those matchups before Monday night.
The 1999 Redskins were a field goal away from beating the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, a win that would have put them one victory from the Super Bowl. They set up for a 50-yard attempt with 1:17 left in the fourth quarter, only to see center Dan Turk botch the snap. Kicker Brett Conway, who earlier in the game nailed one from 48 yards out, never got a chance and the Redskins lost 14-13.
The 2014-15 Wizards were two games away from reaching the semis when Paul Pierce thought he beat the buzzer to force overtime against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6. Instead, the Wizards became the first team in NBA history to be eliminated from the playoffs on a call determined by replay.
That series was also greatly affected by an injury to star point guard John Wall. The Wizards won Game 1 in Atlanta, but saw Wall land hard under the basket and break his left wrist. The Wizards would lose four of the next five games.
The Wizards have reached the second round of the playoffs four times during the 20-year drought. The closest they got to advancing was last May when they lost in seven games to the Boston Celtics. In Game 7 it was Kelly Olynyk who came out of nowhere to spoil their party, much like Jaroslav Halak did to the Capitals in 2010 and Kozma and Daniel Descalso did to the Nats in 2012.
D.C. teams were an amazing 0-13 in games with a chance to reach the semis from 1998 until the Caps broke through.
Many stars have emerged in the last 20 years, ones that gave D.C. fans hope for a breakthrough. Some have continued to blossom, while others have fallen in unusually cruel ways.
Robert Griffin III was one of the best rookie quarterbacks in NFL history before tearing up his knee in a Redskins playoff loss to the Seattle Seahawks in January 2013. He was never the same afterward.
Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas was the NBA's leading scorer when he collided with Gerald Wallace, injured his knee and never recovered his explosive first step. He later made matters worse with off-the-court issues.
The Capitals saw defenseman Mike Green emerge as a perennial Norris Trophy contender. Several injuries later and he could never quite regain that form.
That's all not to mention the tragic death of Redskins superstar safety Sean Taylor, who was killed during the prime of his career in 2007.
D.C. has held this distinction of the longest wait for a semifinal berth for many years. We at NBC Sports Washington (then CSN) first started documenting it in 2009.
Since then, the Capitals and Nationals have risen to prominence as premier teams in their respective leagues. The Redskins have had many lows, but some extreme highs. Griffin III's rookie season had many wondering if Washington had found their franchise quarterback and if division titles would be commonplace for the next decade or so. The Wizards, led by Wall and Bradley Beal, have gotten close.
Throughout the course of this wait, the Capitals often seemed like the most likely team that would break through. It took years of heartbreak, but with one win the Caps have reset the expectations not only for themselves but for others in this town.
D.C. sports fans have been through a lot over the last two decades. The Capitals have more they would like to accomplish, but by winning on Monday, they have already taken their fans to a place D.C. has not been in a long, long time.
MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:
- Slump Broken: Looking back at '98
- Celly Time: Fans react to Kuzy's goal
- 4 Reasons Why: Game 6 win wasn't easy
- Power Ranks: Updated Standings
- Series Anatomy: Dissecting Caps-Pens
CAPITALS EXTRA PODCAST: GAME 6
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