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After many playoff failures, will this be the year for D.C.?

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After many playoff failures, will this be the year for D.C.?

Wednesday night will be a busy one for fans of Washington, D.C. sports as both the Capitals and Wizards continue their playoff series, both currently playing in the quarterfinals of their respective postseason tournaments. The Wizards will play a pivotal Game 5 against the Hawks in Atlanta, while the Capitals aim to break through in a decisive Game 7 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

The Capitals enter a do-or-die situation that could go two very different ways. If they lose, it will be an all-too-familiar result, as the Caps are 4-12 with a chance to clinch a playoff series since Alex Ovechkin was drafted in 2004. Ten separate times in franchise history have they blown a two-game playoff series lead, just as they did this series after starting out at 3-1. The Rangers also beat the Caps in Game 7s in both 2012 and 2013.

But if the Caps win, they will advance to the Eastern Conference Final, or in other words the semifinals of their playoff bracket. No D.C. major sports team - the Capitals, Nationals, Redskins or Wizards - has accomplished that feat in 17 years. The last to do so were the Caps, who were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.

If the Capitals beat New York on Wednesday, they will become just the second D.C. team to reach the semis since the 1991 Redskins who won the Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 1992. That means only once in the last 23 years has a D.C. major professional sports team been in the final four of their league.

The 17 years of waiting for D.C. sports fans is the longest drought in American professional sports for cities with at least three teams in the big four leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL). Nineteen total cities fit the three-team category and Houston is closest, as they last reached the semis with the Astros in 2005.

Falling short is one thing, exactly how close Washington's teams have come to reaching the semifinals makes it even more remarkable.

This year marks the fourth time since 1998 the Capitals have made the quarterfinals of the NHL playoffs and the third time they've been a game away from advancing further. The Nationals have twice been to the quarterfinals of the MLB playoffs during that stretch, so have the Redskins in the NFL. The Wizards are in the quarterfinals this year for the third time since 1998. That's 11 total appearances between them and so far none have advanced.

The Nationals were a strike away in 2012 against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the NL Division Series before a historic collapse by their bullpen. The Nats blew a six-run lead that night, the first team in MLB history to do so in a winner-take-all playoff game. They won an MLB-best 98 wins that season, but could not get the final out they needed as closer Drew Storen allowed four runs in the ninth inning.

Nationals Insider Mark Zuckerman covered that fateful game for CSNwashington.com and this week recalled the experience.

"I think at first fans were just thrilled to have a really good local baseball team, one that could bring postseason baseball back to the District for the first time in eight decades. But once the NLCS was within reach — really within reach by the ninth inning of Game 5 in 2012 — simply making the playoffs didn't feel like enough anymore. Local fans found out what so many in places like Boston and Chicago and others had known forever: Nothing stings worse than a heartbreaking loss in October.

"But I do think that experience — coming so close, then seeing it slip away — is necessary in the bigger picture. When the day comes and the Nationals win something in October — and that day will most definitely come eventually — it'll be even sweeter because of the heartache that came before it."

The Redskins were a field goal away from reaching the NFC Championship in January of 2000. Brad Johnson led the Skins' offense down the field in Tampa against the Buccaneers and called a timeout to set up a 51-yard field goal attempt for Brett Conway with 1:17 left in the fourth quarter. But a botched snap by Dan Turk prevented Conway from getting a kick off and the Redskins lost 14-13.

Comcast SportsNet's Brian Mitchell played in that game and ran the opening kickoff of the second half back 100 yards for a touchdown. He recalled the ending in a conversation with CSNwashington.com:

"I remember Dan Turk, God bless his soul. The ball rolled back, the snap to the kicker. [Brad Johnson] couldn't hold onto it," he said. "I felt that team right there was about as good as any I've been around."

Mitchell's co-host on SportsTalk Live, CSN's Chick Hernandez covered the game and vividly remembers the final sequence.

"End of the game, I was in the endzone getting ready for a standup to say that Brett Conway kicked the game winner. I had my back to the play as I was standing under the goalpost, then I saw the crowd begin to cheer out of control, I looked back and saw the Bucs celebrating. Dan Turk's snap rolled back to Brad Johnson, the kick never happened, end of game 14-13. Never saw a man more down after the game than Dan Turk. He didn't fly back with the team. He just walked the streets of Tampa that night," Hernandez said.

The Capitals have plenty of playoff heartbreak in their long history, including a historic loss in 2010 when they became the first NHL team to lose to an eighth seed as a No. 1 seed after holding a 3-1 series lead.

The Redskins Insider at CSNwashington.com, Tarik El-Bashir covered the Capitals for The Washington Post for seven seasons. He looked back on those days this week:

"I’ve followed the Caps since I was kid playing hockey on local rinks in Montgomery County. I was also lucky enough to cover the team from 2005-2011 for The Washington Post. So, yeah, I know a thing or two about playoff disappointments.

"The first round, Game 7 overtime loss to the Flyers in 2008 was tough. The Game 7 semifinal loss to the Pens a year later was a gut punch. Ditto for Tampa Bay’s second round sweep in 2011. But to me, the biggest letdown in recent years came in 2010, when the Caps blew a 3-1 quarterfinal series lead against the Canadiens.

"The Caps were Presidents’ Trophy winners that year, racking up an amazing 121 points behind an unbelievably prolific offense. I thought Alex Ovechkin and Co. were finally going to win the Stanley Cup—and I know I wasn’t alone.

"Then Jaroslav Halak silenced the Caps’ Young Guns and, like that, the season was over."

The Wizards are locked in a tied playoff series despite seeing star point guard John Wall go down with a serious wrist injury in Game 1. This is the third time they've come this far during the 17-year period, but many feel it is their best opportunity yet to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Steve Buckhantz, the Wizards' play-by-play voice for Comcast SportsNet, believes this could be the year. Buckhantz is a D.C.-native who has been covering local teams since 1984 and calling Wizards games since 1997.

"With the way all the stars have aligned, it looks like it is their best chance," he explained.

"In the Gilbert Arenas years when they got the second round, they had to play Miami. That was a foregone conclusion. The way this has worked out here, where they played Toronto. The fact they swept them still boggles my mind. To me that was so impressive. It can’t be overstated how huge that was to win four games and sweep that team. That’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen so far."

Buckhantz is optimistic about both the Wizards and the Capitals as they try to break Washington's recent run of playoff misfortune. He thinks there is something special going on between the teams, as players from the Wizards, Nationals and Capitals have been spotted at each other's games.

"If you are a Washington sports fan, you just have to be beside yourself right now," he said. "To see those athletes, these really prolific and professional athletes come and cheer for each other. I’ve never seen it before. To me, it’s a beautiful dynamic."

Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman also has hope for the Caps and Wizards, despite having both seen and lived through the city's playoff disappointments. He grew up in Virginia, went to UVa and has spent his entire MLB career in Washington.

"D.C.'s one of those towns where there's so many other things going on. Sports are kind of, unless you get to the final four of your league, something that doesn’t get really much play until then. But what's happening now is good. It's good for the city. It's good for sports. People are excited. It's been a long time. Some of the fans are pretty frustrated, I guess," he said.

Mitchell was a member of D.C.'s last world championship team, the 1991 Redskins, and has witnessed most of what has transpired since while working in the media as a television and radio analyst. He too thinks this year could be different.

"This city has been very supportive of those two teams and have been behind them. We've had the Caps and the Wiz elevate their game and play a lot better. The next step is to get to the conference championship. I think it would do wonders," he said.

"When I first got here with the football team, we went and won the Super Bowl. People have been looking for that type of thing ever since. Now you have two teams right on the brink of it. Somebody has to get over the hump. It seems bleak on both sides because John Wall is out and the Caps have to go to another seventh game, but ultimately I think both of them can get it done. And if they do, you will find out exactly what this city is about. They love winners, believe me."

The Capitals understand their recent history and hope it all ends on Wednesday.

"The culture is different. The buzz around the city is a little bit different. We’re doing good, the Wizards are doing good, the Nats are doing good, a new culture with the Redskins coming up. So, I feel like there is more of a buzz around the city," defenseman Karl Alzner said.

"We would really love to be the team that helps get us to the next level. It’s one of our goals, to do that for the city."

Through 17 years, the opportunities have been there, just like they will be on Wednesday night. Yet time and time again D.C. teams have fallen short. Someday one of them will break through, and for a town that has suffered so much failure in the playoffs, the celebration will be extraordinary.

Is tonight the night?

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The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

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The Blues turnaround from last place to the playoffs began with a blowout win over the Caps

When the St. Louis Blues woke up on Jan. 3, they were in dead last in the NHL. A 15-18-4 record gave them 34 points, less than teams like the Los Angeles Kings and the Ottawa Senators who would go on to finish the season as the two worst teams. Yes, St. Louis had played in only 37 games to that point, the fewest in the league, but finding a way to climb back into the playoff hunt seemed daunting and unlikely.

Now the Blues are the Western Conference champions and stand just four wins away from the Stanley Cup.

The Blues have been one of the best stories of the NHL season climbing from last place to the Stanley Cup Final. When looking back at St. Louis’ season, there are several moments one can point to as key moments in the turnaround. Craig Berube replaced Mike Yeo as head coach on Nov. 20 and goalie Jordan Binnington got his first start with the Blues on Jan. 7 and never gave back the crease.

But the turnaround really started on Jan. 3. On that morning, the Blues were in last place. That would be the last day they would find themselves there.
And it all started with a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals.

On Jan. 3, St. Louis and Washington looked like two teams headed in opposite directions. While the Blues were in last place, the Caps were rolling with a 24-11-3 record, first in the Metropolitan Division. Washington came into St. Louis on a five-game road winning streak. As if that wasn’t enough, the Blues were also without sniper Vladimir Tarasenko.

And yet, what looked like an easy win for the Caps turned into anything but. Robert Thomas scored a deflection just four minutes into the game. Washington managed to take a 2-1 lead early in the second, but St. Louis rattled off four straight goals for the 5-2 win. With Washington down only 3-2 heading into the third period, the Blues but on a possession clinic outshooting Washington 14-2 in the final frame.

"We stayed aggressive," Alex Pietrangelo told reporters. "When we're playing in the O zone, the best way to play defense is to play in their end. We kept the puck, we moved the puck, we worked. Forwards were great tonight, protecting the center of the ice. It kind of took their playmakers out of the game."

The Caps’ first shot came 13 minutes into the third. By then, the Blues already had 12 shots and two goals.

Over the course of an 82-game season, teams will lose games against teams they shouldn’t. This felt different. Watching this game, you did not come away thinking the Caps played down to an inferior team. The Blues dominated that game and the Caps knew it.

“They were skating, competing harder, won races, more determined than we were,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “If we’re being honest about it, we didn’t have a very good game, and they played a pretty darn good game.”
More importantly, St. Louis realized it as well. They knew following the game that this was a win and a performance they could build on.

“I think we out-chanced them, so we're building here at even strength,” Pietrangelo said. “It's just a matter of keeping it at even strength and scoring goals. Tonight the goals weren't necessarily pretty but we created a lot of chances."
That night proved to be the first night of the turnaround. From Jan. 3 on, no team in the NHL earned more points than St. Louis’ 65, not even the Tampa Bay Lightning who won the Presidents’ Trophy with an incredible 128 points.

St. Louis was not expected to be bad this season. The team made a number of offseason moves to bolster the roster and many thought they could be real contenders, but they sure did not play like it through the first half of the season. It took a big win over the defending Stanley Cup champs to show them and everyone else just how good they really were. From that point on, they never looked back.

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Can the Caps make another run at the Stanley Cup?

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Capitals Mailbag Part 2: Can the Caps make another run at the Stanley Cup?

It’s time for a new Capitals mailbag! You can read Wednesday’s Part 1 here.

Check out Part 2 below.

Have a Caps question you want to be answered in the next mailbag? Send it on Twitter using #CapsMailNBC or by email to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com.

Please note, some questions have been edited for clarity.

No word on who could be a potential trade partner. The first team I thought of was someone like Ottawa. After getting rid of...well, everyone, they are a team that will need to spend some money to get to the salary floor and they could certainly use some veteran leadership.

Do not get too excited about a possible return. No one is blind as to why the Caps may be exploring such a move and no one is going to be in a rush to do Washington any favors. Unless MacLellan is targeting a depth forward which would help fill a need, the Caps cannot afford to take much if any salary back in the deal so I would expect this deal to largely be for draft picks and not players.

What about prospects? I have a hard time seeing any team trading a high-end prospect for a 32-year-old defenseman coming off a tough year with a $5.75 million cap hit. Let’s temper expectations here.

As to your second question, the two guys with the highest ceilings are Kody Clark and Garrett Pilon. If they continue developing I could see them being middle six guys. The second line may be a reach, but in today’s NHL your third line needs to be productive as well. Both guys, however, still need some time to develop.

Nathan S. writes: Given all the analysis about why the Caps came up short in their effort to repeat, a lot was mentioned about the short off-season. This leads me to wonder how the Penguins repeated in 2017? They did it without their leading D-man Kris Letang and also had the short summer following 2016 Cup run? Did Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin's experience trying to repeat in 2010 give them wisdom to share with their teammates? Did they get a little lucky in playing a mediocre Ottawa team in the Eastern Conference Final? Did they have more players new to the 2017 team that were hungry?

Actually, the 2016-17 Penguins managed to keep almost its entire roster together losing only Ben Lovejoy and Jeff Zatkoff so that definitely was a factor in the repeat. It is also not really fair to say Ottawa was mediocre as it took a Game 7 overtime goal for Pittsburgh to finally put the Senators away. They were literally one goal away from playing for the Cup.

I have always been tempted to dismiss the 2017 postseason as an anomaly because the Penguins were able to win without Letang and there is no way that defense should have been good enough to hoist a Cup. There is another factor, however, that played a major role and has again proved huge this year and that is the importance of keeping goalies fresh.

In 2016, Matt Murray carried the bulk of the load for Pittsburgh with 21 starts in the postseason. In 2017, Marc-Andre Fleury was the No. 1 with 15 starts. Now let’s consider that of the four starting goalies in the conference finals in 2019, only one of them, Martin Jones, appeared in more than 50 games in the regular season. Jones played in 62 games, Rask in 46, Petr Mrazek in 40 and Jordan Binnington in 32 (48 if you count the 16 games he played in the AHL).

Add in the fact that Holtby appeared in only 54 games in the 2017-18 season as opposed to the 63, 66 and 73 he played in the three seasons prior and I am beginning to think a fresh goalie may be one of, if not the biggest factor in a deep playoff run.

Nathan S. writes: What are the biggest keys for Caps to make another Cup run next year?

The first key is to lock down the bottom six. You cannot win without depth. If Carl Hagelin, Brett Connolly, and Andre Burakovsky all leave as cap casualties in the offseason, you have to be able to replace them with quality players. You cannot just stick some scrubs on the third line and rely on the top six to do all the work while playing the fourth line seven minutes a night. Those days are over.

Evgeny Kuznetsov has to be better. The team cannot afford for him to be a pretty good second-line center. He needs to play up to the MVP caliber player we saw in the Cup run, especially with Ovechkin getting another year older. Other players are going to have to share in the offensive load because Ovechkin cannot hit 50 goals forever.

Backup goaltending is also quietly becoming more important. I went into more detail above, but the Caps should aim to keep Holtby at about 55 appearances at the maximum. You can only do that if you get solid backup goaltending.

Structurally, the team needs to be smarter with the puck. There were too many lazy passes, too many times when players ignored the easy passes and went for the more difficult and ill-advised ones that led to turnovers, too many times when a player would skate himself into a turnover in the offensive zone, too many times the puck was carelessly given up in the defensive zone leading to penalties and goals. That should be something that is correctable by the coaches.

Finally, take advantage of the long offseason. Few players seemed to know how to handle the shortened offseason in 2018 other than Ovechkin. Now they have extra time this year, they need to use it to both rest and get a full offseason of training in.

It took just four games for Boston to put away the team that eliminated the Caps and there are a few reasons why. Every good team has a strong top six, but depth scoring is the difference between a good team and a championship one. The Bruins were thought to be a top-heavy team coming into the playoffs, but that has not been the case thus far in the postseason.

Washington had 10 players score in seven games against the Hurricanes. It had 20 goals in those games and nine of them came from Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. In just four games, Boston got goals from 12 different players. Despite having arguably the best line in hockey with Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak, that line only accounted for six of the team’s 17 goals in the series.

Having a hot goalie certainly helps as well. Holtby was fine with a 2.67 GAA and .914 save percentage and was certainly not the reason Washington lost. Tuukka Rask, however, was better. He torched Carolina with a 1.25 GAA and .956 save percentage.

Williams looked every bit the clutch playoff performer against the Caps, but Boston – and Marchand in particular – was able to get under his skin. I would not advocate for more players to try Marchand’s shenanigans, but while Washington was able to use its physical play so effectively in 2018, that was basically a non-factor in 2019.

One other major issue: the power play. Despite how horrendously bad the Caps looked on zone entries, they actually managed a respectable 25-percent on the power play against the Hurricanes. How did Boston do? OK, I guess, with a 46.7-percent. Read that again, that is not a typo. In 15 power plays, the Bruins scored seven times. The Caps went seven games with Carolina with the series ultimately being decided in double overtime. The margin separating the two teams was that thin. If the Caps had figured out at all how to break into the offensive zone during the power play, that would have tipped the series in their favor.

It is becoming a constant refrain in these mailbags, but I will repeat myself yet again: get rid of the sling shot.

Snively’s strength is more offensive so I do not foresee him being a big penalty killer. He stepped into the AHL and made an offensive impact right away with two goals and five assists in just nine games. When the playoffs started, however, it was a different story. He had no points in two games and from what I heard when I went to Hershey, that was his real “welcome to the pros” moment and he became clearly overmatched. He was sent back to Yale soon after to complete his classes for his degree.

Since most questions regarding prospects are really about if a player can step into the lineup next season, I would say that seems doubtful given how last season ended. I think there may be some NHL third-line potential there, but it is hard to tell after just nine games.

Mary B. writes: The lack of respect for the Capitals seems palpable as I watch the playoffs this year. Examples of what I mean: The NHL made a new commercial about hockey being something you feel, and there’s not a single second of footage of the Caps in the ad being shown during playoff games. MacLellan is not a finalist for Executive of the year. John Carlson is not a finalist for the Norris. Ovechkin is not a finalist for the Messier Leadership award. On the reverse side, Tom Wilson gets more scrutiny and sever punishment than anyone in the league, yet when a Caps player is hit in the head and/or injured, it barely seems to be noticed. 

Why? What have the Caps done to merit such treatment?

In terms of the “Feel” commercial, I don’t know what to tell you. There are several moments of Ovechkin hoisting the Cup and of the parade in Washington. If that got cut for the shortened commercial, well, that happens all the time. There are 31 teams and you are not going to fit all of them in a 30-second commercial spot. MacLellan is not a finalist for general manager of the year because that award is actually voted on after the second round of the playoffs. If your team is eliminated in the first round, chances are you are not going to be a finalist. All three finalists were the general managers of teams in the conference finals.

Can’t argue with you on Carlson. I vote on the Norris and he was second on my ballot. He should at least have been named a finalist. I wonder if there’s just a tendency to dismiss him as an offensive guy or if he gets overshadowed by Ovechkin the same way Nicklas Backstrom does. For the Messier Award, Mark Messier personally chooses the finalists himself so you’ll have to take it up with him. It is hard to argue with any of the three guys he chose.

Wilson is not singled out because he is a Capital, he is singled out because he has been suspended four times in a short span and three of those incidents that led to suspension happened during the preseason which means they were unnecessary. He has to play smarter and he did that once he returned from the Oskar Sundqvist suspension. Do people overly scrutinize his game? Yes, but that has nothing to do with the fact that he plays for the Caps.

Austin C. writes: Do you think that there is still a big rivalry when it comes to Baltimore vs DC sports?

The D.C.-Baltimore rivalry is an interesting one given how much intermingling there is. Baltimore still cheers for the Caps and Wizards and there are still a lot of Orioles fans in Washington, or at least there was until the Orioles became so bad they can’t even figure out how to get an out in an easy in-field play with the bases loaded. Seriously, a little league team would have played that better.

The two biggest issues for the rivalry are the baseball TV rights fiasco and the Ravens-Redskins. I would contend the average sports fan does not know much about the TV feud between the Nationals and Orioles other than the fact that it exists. What everyone knows, however, is that sports coverage in the DMV area is completely dominated by the Redskins, a team that has won three playoff games since 1992. They have won two Super Bowls despite not even being a team until 1996 and they remain completely secondary to the Redskins. I can see why that would rub Baltimore fans the wrong way.

But with the Nationals-Orioles and Redskins-Ravens in different leagues/conferences, you do not get regular matchups to help fan the flames of hatred that fuel the great rivalries. A rivalry definitely exists, but I would not call it a big one.

The real question is whether Joe Flacco or Jason Campbell is more elite?

Thanks for all your questions! If you have a question you want to be read and answered in the next mailbag, send it to CapitalsMailbag@gmail.com or use #CapsMailNBC on Twitter.

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