Whicker: Blow up your franchise when things go wrong? The Washington Capitals didn't


A mad Russian was on a rampage in the District of Columbia.

He drank many beers at a baseball game. He took off his shirt and jumped into fountains. He went behind the bar at Cafe Milano, with the President’s daughter and husband in the house. He sang songs and did a headstand into a silver vase.

Alex Ovechkin was the Pie-eyed Piper, leading his teammates and everyone with a cellphone  through the streets, the Stanley Cup by his side even as he stumbled into bed Saturday night.

The 44-year-old Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup. They transferred their heartbreak to the followers of the one-year-old Vegas Golden Knights, whose astounding success triggered all the pre-series buzz and allowed Washington to step into the Final without its scarlet letter.

The Knights’ back line, particularly ex-Ducks Shea Theodore and Luca Sbisa, had a bad case of the yips. Their goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, finally ran into a better goaltender, Braden Holtby. Ovechkin was the first player Vegas had encountered who could tilt a series by himself.

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Ovechkin now leaves Mike Trout as the best player in the four major sports who hasn’t won a championship. He has led the NHL in scoring seven times and has 607 regular-season goals. He had 15 goals and 27 points in 24 postseason games, but he also blocked 14 shots, and he released every calorie of emotion throughout. When Evgeny Kuznetsov sailed in for the breakaway that finally toppled the Penguins in the second round, Ovechkin was asked what he was thinking. “Score,” he gasped. “Just (deleted) score.”

The Capitals also broke a civic drought that stretched to the Redskins’ Super Bowl victory after the 1992 season. There were many pre-series jokes about the most depraved, evil and immortal city in America going up against Las Vegas.

But Washington is no more full of lobbyists than L.A. is full of waitressing actors. Ovechkin’s binge was Washington’s purge.

Somebody wins the Cup each year. What made the Capitals unique?

Suffering did, and the franchise’s reasoned response to it.

Until this season the Capitals had made the playoffs in nine of 10 seasons. They had won only six playoff series. In that time they lost seven Game 7s, three of them to the Rangers, four at home.

This Capitals team was the fourth coached by Barry Trotz. Despite the frustrations, there were 13 skaters on the 2018 team who were holdovers from 2015. Five key Capitals had been together for at least seven seasons.

Defenseman Karl Alzner became a free agent last summer and signed with Montreal. Justin Williams, 35, left for Carolina. Marcus Johansson was traded to New Jersey.

Otherwise, Capitals’ management resisted calls from fans and media to “blow it up,” to send the Capitals to the back to the line merely because it would feel good.

Washington and Anaheim are the only two NHL franchises to reach 100 points in each of their past four seasons (the Ducks’ streak is five).

“The perception from outside was negative and I was getting frustrated,” general manager Brian MacLellan told the Washington Post. “How do people say this isn’t a good team? You go through the exercise of it: Who are you going to move? How does this make us better? The answer is, it doesn’t make us better.”

So Washington made few moves and got better. More accurately, they played better and more substantively.

It took spine to lose their first two playoff games to Columbus, at home, as they were playing backup goalie Philipp Grubauer, and still prevail. At some point they trailed in every series.

But then executives aren’t paid to curse at the sky and throw beers at the TV. They’re paid to remember how long the seasons are. In early May you heard some people demanding the dismantlement of the Dodgers, who had won 103 games in 2017 and were now coping with excessive injuries. The injuries have continued but the Dodgers are contending again.

Blowing up a solid team is like blowing up your house at the sight of a solitary termite. You spray, you alter, you redecorate, maybe you hire a tent. The worst outcome is that you become the Super Bowl-losing Buffalo Bills. That’s a lot more fun than becoming the playoff-eluding Buffalo Bills.

Washington, or at least its hockey team, held its faith and patience. Without it, Ovechkin would have missed the chance to prove that winning the Cup is only the second-toughest feat in sports. Waking up, on some morning to be named later, is his Capital punishment.



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