The lesson of the past decade for Capitals fans is that sometimes it really is all worth it.
All of the heartache, the devastating playoff losses, the times you gave up and figured it would never happen during the Alex Ovechkin era, was wiped away with the incredible Stanley Cup playoff run in 2018.
Even 18 months later the high has barely worn off. Ovechkin is within striking distance of 700 career goals. He and Nicklas Backstrom just played their 900th game together last week. As a new decade approaches, the Capitals again have the best record in the NHL. A fourth Presidents’ Trophy is within reach and more memories are on the horizon.
Maybe it’s the Cup, but it’s easier to look back upon the past 10 years with some grace now. The shocking 2010 first-round loss to Montreal still stings. So does the image of Ovechkin sitting, shattered, at his locker after playoff exits to Tampa Bay in 2011 (second round) and against the Rangers in 2012 (second round) and 2013 and 2015 (second). And, of course, the back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy seasons ended by the Penguins in the second round of the 2016 and 2017 postseasons.
Maybe you’ll always wonder if there should be multiple Stanley Cup banners hanging from the rafters at Capital One Arena the way they do in Chicago and Pittsburgh and Los Angeles. But they can’t take away the one hanging there.
The past 10 years began with the height of the Young Guns era when Ovechkin and Backstrom and Mike Green and Alex Semin led Bruce Boudreau’s high-flying, entertaining teams. They began the decade in January 2010 with 14 consecutive wins, stomping teams nightly. It was pure fun, a jolt of energy in an otherwise dreary sports landscape where the Redskins and Wizards stunk and the Nationals were the worst team in baseball.
That streak finally culminated in the iconic Snowvechkin weekend. A blizzard dropped upwards of 30 inches on the D.C. area on Feb. 5-6, 2010. The Capitals played two games that weekend: A 5-2 Friday night win against the then-Atlanta Thrashers when the snow began and the 5-4 overtime win against the Penguins on NBC as the city dug out on Super Bowl Sunday. Down 4-1, Ovechkin scored twice and Mike Knuble had the OT winner. Not even the Montreal loss can take away that memory.
The decade was full of moments like that. The Winter Classic in 2011 when an estimated 25,000 Capitals fans proved once and for all the city had fallen for its hockey team. They made the drive up to Pittsburgh and saw Washington take a 3-1 win in the drizzling rain at Heinz Field. The highway was crowded with cars sporting Capitals decals and flags on the ride back to D.C. the next day. The 2015 Winter Classic held at Nationals Park against the Chicago Blackhawks. The outdoor game at the Naval Academy during the 2018 Cup year against the Toronto Maple Leafs might have been most fun of all.
There were ups and downs over the years. Boudreau was the rumpled everyman whose teams took on his personality, but that group had run its course by the end of 2011. Capitals great Dale Hunter took over. The team changed. The up-and-down hockey was replaced by a nightly coin flip. Keep it close and hope the results fall in your favor.
Joel Ward’s stunning Game 7 goal at T.D. Garden on April 25, 2012 lifted the Capitals to a first-round series win against the defending champion Boston Bruins. Alas, two weeks later the coin landed on the other side in Game 7 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, a 2-1 loss to end the season and Hunter’s brief tenure.
If playoff success was elusive, Ovechkin provided plenty of “I was there” moments. He scored goals No. 500 in 2016 and No. 600 in 2018 at home . He won a third Hart Trophy in 2012-13. After a mid-career lull that saw him once drop to 32 goals, he topped 50 goals four more times during the decade and hit 49 another time for good measure. He became the all-time leader in points by a Russian player last season, surpassing his hero and former teammate Sergei Fedorov.
The Capitals have the most wins in the decade (464) by three over their rivals from Pittsburgh (461). They have the most points (1,018). The Penguins are second (1,002) there, too. Of course, Pittsburgh won two Cups in the past 10 years. That will always be the Penguins’ trump card.
When Washington missed the playoffs in 2014-15 it looked like the Ovechkin era might be fading. But owner Ted Leonsis made a tough call. He didn’t renew the contract of general manager George McPhee, the architect of all that winning. He and hand-picked coach Adam Oates were gone. Brian MacLellan, McPhee’s chief lieutenant, took over as GM because he confidently identified the issues holding the Capitals back and was willing to gamble to fix them.
MacLellan hired Barry Trotz, who was the first experienced NHL coach Washington had in the Ovechkin era. He’d been working wonders with undermanned teams in Nashville for 15 years. MacLellan then paid for two experienced defensemen in Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen in free agency that first summer of 2014.
A year later, after another gutting Game 7 playoff loss to the Rangers, MacLellan traded for winger T.J. Oshie and signed veteran Stanley Cup wizard Justin Williams. They arrived just as homegrown players like Braden Holtby, Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson, Tom Wilson, Dmitry Orlov, Jay Beagle, Marcus Johansson, Philipp Grubauer and Andre Burakovsky were either thriving or growing into bigger NHL roles.
The Capitals had to say goodbye to some familiar faces. Other than Ovechkin, no one epitomized those Young Gun era teams more than defenseman Mike Green. But he was a free agent in 2015 and they let him go. Brooks Laich, who predated even Ovechkin as the main piece in the 2004 Peter Bondra trade, was traded in 2016 just as Washington was headed for another Presidents’ Trophy. Karl Alzner, a mainstay since he was the fifth pick in the 2007 draft, departed via free agency after the crushing 2017 loss to Pittsburgh.
Players like Knuble and Ward, who teamed up for the game-winning goal in that 2012 Boston series, came and went. Troy Brouwer (2011-2015) did the same. He was traded for Oshie a few months after scoring the game-winning goal against the Blackhawks in the Winter Classic game at Nationals Park. Matt Hendricks became a folk hero as a scrap heap pickup who was a key fourth liner – and surprising shootout specialist - for three years from 2010-2013. Jason Chimera arrived in 2009 and raced his way up and down the ice for seven seasons from 2009 to 2016. \
MacLellan’s moves almost all worked. The Capitals were a better overall team in 2015-2017 than they’d been with the run-and-gun group early in the decade or the veteran group they morphed into through Hunter and Oates’ three seasons and then Trotz’s arrival.
Trotz could be demanding, but he was a steady hand with an experienced staff of assistant coaches. And Washington continued to develop young players like 2013 first-round pick Jakub Vrana, who scored the first goal in the Game 5 Cup clincher against Vegas.
Just when it looked like it really was all over, after Alzner and Williams and Johansson and promising young defenseman Nate Schmidt departed in the summer of 2017 through free agency and the expansion draft, the Capitals found some magic.
Midway through that following season they somehow put their grief behind them. They won the Metropolitan Division for the third year in a row. And, finally, they got some luck in the playoffs. Columbus hits a post in overtime of Game 3 already up 2-0 in a first-round series. Lars Eller, another veteran player MacLellan brought in to fix a hole in the lineup, scored instead.
Eller was acquired as a third-line center, but he proved more than that filling in for an injured Backstrom in a top-six role against Pittsburgh in the second round and Tampa Bay early in the Eastern Conference Final. His eventual winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final clincher will stand for all time. Michal Kempny was on the ice for that goal. His acquisition at the trade deadline from Chicago, where he was buried in a limited role, solidified the blueline at the perfect time. He’s become a key part of their continued success.
Brett Connolly’s initial shot was the one that slipped past Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury so that Eller could sneak in and slam it home. Connolly was more MacLellan magic. He gave the former first-round pick a third chance after Tampa Bay and Boston gave up on him. Connolly arrived the same year as Eller, in 2016, made the team and increased his career-best point totals from 23 to 27 to 46. He had 52 goals in three seasons – and six more during the Cup run - before leaving for a bigger role in Florida last summer.
Nor will Capitals fans forget the unsung heroes of that championship spring, which ended with players swimming in fountains and partying with fans across the city. Devante Smith-Pelly and Alex Chiasson and Nathan Walker and Travis Boyd all contributed to that title. Only Boyd remains from that group.
Maybe the Cup helped ease the pain from all those losses, made those years seem better than they felt back then. But it’s more likely that even without that banner, time alone would have done that. It would be difficult to toss aside all that winning, all those personalities, all those memories even if 2018 hadn’t happened.
Fans got to see one of the greatest players ever in Ovechkin, a trusty future Hall-of-Fame sidekick in Backstrom, a Vezina Trophy winner in Holtby, a dynamic defenseman in Green, a world-class talent in Kuznetsov.
Carlson is the early favorite for the Norris Trophy this season. Oshie is wildly popular, a U.S. Olympic hero with ridiculous skill who can also slam beers through his t-shirt. So is Wilson, the bruising winger hated in so many other NHL cities for his physical play who has tempered his image as a brash goon by becoming a legitimate top-six player.
It will all come to an end at some point, of course. Ovechkin will retire and most of the core players will depart. Maybe the Capitals can extend this run well into the next decade, but at some point management will make mistakes it can’t fix, stars will age, new prospects won’t materialize.
When that finally happens, when the Stanley Cup playoffs become a pipe dream and dreary, dull, losing hockey is played before half-interested crowds, the magnitude of this past decade will stick with those who got to see it all in person. A fan can still enjoy the game under those circumstances, keep an eye on a young hotshot prospect – maybe the next Backstrom or Carlson or Holtby – and hope for a better future.
But, inevitably, the eye at some point will wander toward the rafters, where the Stanley Cup banner hangs along with ones for Presidents’ Trophies and division titles and retired numbers, a reminder of happy, youthful days that passed so quickly but linger still.
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