These are tough days for the Troll of Washington, who for many years has lurked under the bridges of the city, scaring sports fans with his ominous warnings, defeatist insults and screaming taunts about their luckless, or not-quite-good-enough, or downright choking-dog pro teams.
The Troll has had things his own way for a quarter of a century. Washington’s football, baseball, basketball and hockey teams are 1 for 86 in reaching the semifinal round in their sports since 1992. None has won a title. But now the ugly old soul is worried. Even trolls have nightmares and his are coming true.
Sometimes he’ll hide under the Memorial Bridge, where nobody can see his psychological warts and twisted soul, and use his deepest, scariest voice to intone, “The Capitals will always lose in the playoffs. The Penguins own them. Game 7 at home is bad, not good. There is no hope for Alex Ovechkin or Nick Backstrom to lift Lord Stanley’s Cup. The whole franchise is cursed forever.”
Then the old Troll will curl up under the Woodrow Wilson Bridge at rush hour, when nobody in the jam up can get away from his tormenting sound and bellow, “You can change their name from Bullets to Wizards, but you can’t fool me. They’ll never get past the second round, just like they haven’t since ’79.”
Maybe this aging, limping Troll, who’s counting on his exhausted tropes to persecute faint hearts again, will have one more gleeful hour. Two years ago in May, as Dan Steinberg points out in his column, the Caps and Wiz had crucial second-round games on the same day — the Caps a Game 7 and the Wiz, tied at 2-2, a Game 5 in Atlanta. That’s the same setup as this nutty Wednesday night with the Caps against the Penguins at Verizon Center and the Wiz in Boston for Game 5.
In 2015, both D.C. teams lost. They could again. The best and worst news about sports is that there’s no script and no moral force tweaking the score. Heroes, goats and luck all show up.
For some, the lesson from two springs ago was, “Why bother? This is Washington.” Maybe because I saw a victory parade with a 15-mile-long line of fans for a Bullets’ NBA title and covered the throngs on Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate three Super Bowl wins, my reaction was the opposite: The big fun is probably returning. Just wait a bit more.
Cities and their sports usually run in long cycles. Every under-35 Washington fan, like my 30-year-old son, has never had anything much to hang their hat or team jersey on. Yet they will almost certainly get their turn. That doesn’t mean you necessarily “win it all.” But you are squarely in the picture. You get to experience the long, chilling postseason ride. And maybe you even win.
Our point of view is often based in our own experience. When I was 30, no D.C. team had been a champion since I was born. Then for 20 years this area won plenty, in many areas. The lesson: Winners don’t fear justified optimism. You don’t always win. But as Nationals Manager Dusty Baker says, ingrained self-protective pessimism is a sports sickness that both players and fans should try to shed.
A month ago, I wrote that if this really was the best of all Capitals teams, as they believe, and if this was the last-and-best chance for a team of the Ovechkin era to win the Cup, then remarkable, odds-defying events would probably have to happen. Because that’s the scary trek most NHL champs must take — full of overtimes, series in which you trail and multiple elimination games survived.
The Choking Caps would have to become, for one spring, the Comeback Caps, the Cardiac Caps and the Clutch Caps. They’d have to accept that this was usually a minimum requirement. If they couldn’t flip the old script, rip up the narrative of their previous 27 trips to the playoffs and forge a new identity, they’d lose again.
So far, that’s exactly what has happened. They trailed eighth-seeded Toronto two games to one in the first round and were two defeats from their choke of all chokes. But the Caps won Game 4 in Toronto, then they won Game 5 at home to duck an elimination game in Toronto. They ended the series on the road, despite the Leafs taking a late lead on a zillion-to-one puck bounce off a stanchion for a fluke goal, to avoid the charred nerves and luck of Game 7.
Now, in this Pens series, they’ve faced every bleak Caps scenario that’s afflicted the team when it was a favorite. They screwed up home ice advantage by losing the first two games at Verizon. They wore an NHL black hat after Sidney Crosby suffered a Game 3 concussion on a play that got the Caps a five-minute major and game misconduct. And they fell behind three games to one after a loss in Pittsburgh when the Pens didn’t have Crosby or their top goalie or top defenseman.
Some teams, some towns and some rivalries seem to require a desperate moment, a kind of fulcrum of sports fate, to reverse long-standing infernal trends. In the most famous example in American sports, the Boston Red Sox trailed the New York Yankees three games to none in the 2004 American League Championship Series. In a century of postseason play, no MLB team had ever overcome that deficit. Boston almost lost Game 4, too. But once the Red Sox escaped, they never lost again that season — eight straight, including a World Series sweep of the 105-win Cardinals.
Did the Caps reach a similar point when they trailed 2-1 after two periods in Game 5, and then — just when Normal Cap Procedure would’ve been to freeze up, make mistakes and lose ignominiously — they got three swift goals to win?
That’s how it feels. And that’s how the Penguins’ faces looked in both Games 4 and 5, like a banged-up proud but worried defending champ that thinks it just missed its Kill Shot chances. But that doesn’t mean that’s how this series will end.
“For the first time in this series, we’ll see their most desperate game,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday. “Momentum, score [of Game 6], nothing translates into Game 7. It’s its own entity.”
That’s correct — in every sport in every season. Game 7 is its own world. And it has no rules. Game 7s for teams with legendary hexes are seldom easy.
The Troll of Washington sports is on the ropes. But you need to knock him out.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.
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