WASHINGTON – As checkered playoff histories go, the Washington Capitals haven't been around nearly as long as some NHL teams. The track record was still long and sad.
There was Pat Lafontaine of the Islanders beating them in the four-overtime “Easter Epic” back in 1987. Esa Tikkanen missing a wide-open net in the Stanley Cup Final loss to Detroit in 1998.
Heck, losing nine of 11 postseason meetings against the Pittsburgh Penguins alone is filled to the brim with gut-wrenching letdowns.
The puck finally bounced the right way for the Capitals, who built a 3-1 lead in the Final against Vegas after some rare postseason fortune and wrapped it up Thursday night in Game 5. Lars Eller's double-overtime winner off his right skate kept his team out of a 3-0 hole in the first round. Then came a cathartic, six-game elimination of the Penguins behind a patchwork lineup full of rookies.
Against the Golden Knights, Braden Holtby made the stick save of a lifetime to lock up a Game 2 win and opponent James Neal clanked a shot off the post in Game 4, staring at as much net as Tikkanen had 20 years ago.
It's as though all the bad breaks from the previous 42 seasons of Washington Capitals hockey were being erased – or at least somewhat forgotten – in a run that could deliver the franchise's first title.
“It's like the franchise was star-struck,” said David Poile, who was Washington's general manager from 1982 to 1995.
“They've had all these really good teams, all of these opportunities that appeared that this could be the year that they could win playoff rounds and compete for the Cup or win the Stanley Cup. ... It just feels like – as Barry Trotz would say – the hockey gods have evened things out.”
Before this spring, the Capitals had made it past the second round of the playoffs just twice and reached the final once, when Tikkanen and Co. were swept by the Red Wings. Abe and Irene Pollin, the longtime owners of the Capitals and NBA's Bullets/Wizards, had to learn how to handle losing.
“My husband and I had developed a habit of when we lost, we would go to eat frozen custard to help us deal with the loss,” Irene Pollin recalled.
There were a lot of chances for custard: Teams leading 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won 91 percent of the time (276-28). Of those 28, the Capitals have blown such a lead five times – the most of any team. There was no such falloff this time.
Winning just one game against the expansion Golden Knights already made this the most successful season in the history of a franchise that began in 1974-75. It was, by the way, the worst first-year team in NHL history (8-67-5) that developed into a team known for postseason failures – which only worsened in the Alex Ovechkin era.
For many of the players who have been through it all, the strong showing against Vegas was long overdue.
“I'm part of history. I'm part of not winning a Cup here for a long time,” said Peter Bondra, who played for the Capitals from 1990 to 2004.
“I don't even play, but I feel like a part of this team, believe it or not. It's just something in it. Obviously, I play here for 14 years, I grew up here with the team as a player, my family grew up here.”
After missing the playoffs in their first eight seasons, there was a “Save the Caps” campaign in 1982 just to keep them around and in Washington.
Many expected the NHL's biggest surprise this season, Vegas, to continue its amazing run in its first year. Instead, the seemingly charmed Golden Knights struggled against the rugged Capitals.
Long-suffering Capitals fans have celebrated on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery and filled the rink for viewing parties of road playoff games. They did so again Thursday night and celebrated wildly after the final horn out in Las Vegas.
“Finally. With us being part of the Caps for 15 years, I'm really happy for them,” Poile said.