The faces of the thousands of Washington Capitals fans streaming out of the Verizon Center were largely impassive, a parade of blank looks that betrayed shock but little else.
It was the silence that spoke volumes.
Five minutes earlier, the Capitals and their fans had displayed their swagger one last time. Down 2-0 to the Montreal Canadiens late in the third period of a do-or-die Game 7 of the first round of the NHL playoffs, Washington managed to score on a rebound poked home by center Brooks Laich. The home crowd erupted, sensing the latest storybook finish in a season full of happy endings. In the same complex, the 100 or so fans at Bar Louie began a fiery "Let's go Caps!" chant, with renewed hope that the NHL's best team would find a way to avoid one of the most stunning first-round upsets in league history.
After cranking out a franchise-record 14-game winning streak in midseason this year, Washington became the near-undisputed Stanley Cup frontrunner. The Caps had the NHL's best player, dynamic forward Alex Ovechkin (apologies to Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, but it's no contest right now). They were virtually unstoppable at home, winning 30 of 41 games at the raucous Verizon Center. And when they finished with the most wins (54) and points (121) in the league, they entered the playoffs as the odds-on favorites to win their first ever Stanley Cup.
With that knowledge came an unprecedented feeling for longtime Washington fans: entitlement. The Capitals have only reached the Stanley Cup finals once, in 1998, and they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. After 36 years of futility, the fans' expectations are always tempered, their optimism always cautious. But not this year. Not with Ovi and the gang scoring a league-leading 3.8 goals a game and pulling off one miracle comeback after another. Not with a bottom-heavy Eastern Conference and a spate of Western Conference foes ready to tear each other to pieces in the early rounds of the playoffs. This year, the Stanley Cup was more than expected. It was destiny.
Until it wasn't.
The Caps' first-round series with the Canadiens--who squeaked into the postseason by a single point--was supposed to be the long-awaited juxtaposition of David and Goliath. The long-suffering Capitals had become the unstoppable force, and the Canadiens, who have an NHL-record 24 Stanley Cup titles, were going to be swept away. When Washington took a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, they seemed all but assured of advancing; the success rate for teams up three games to one was 91.3 percent.
But the Canadiens weren't interested in percentages or the entitlement of the Washington faithful. The scrappy team had nothing to lose and nearly 100 years of playoff success for inspiration. They also have a 24-year-old goalie from Bratislava by the name of Jaroslav Halak, a second-year starter who singlehandedly changed the series.
After the Habs surprised the Capitals with a 2-1 victory in Game 5, Halak delivered an unfathomable performance in Game 6, stopping 52 of 53 Washington shots to spearhead a 4-1 rout that evened the series 3-3. Just like that, the series came down to a Game 7 in Washington, where complacency had given way to a burgeoning panic. The fans' dread even found its way onto the front page of the Washington Post's sports section, where columnist Thomas Boswell fumed: "Frankly, I'm sick and damn tired of the same Caps choke story. It's beyond old, beyond sad, beyond undeserved."
So the nervous crowd filed into the stadium, and the fans at Bar Louie looked like a group bracing for the gallows despite their best efforts at optimism. A single Washington goal or great save would bring the cheers back and revitalize the red-shirted masses that wanted any excuse to believe again. But the Caps couldn't get the puck past Halak, and when Montreal scored first the bar filled with scattered expletives and stunned silence.
When the Canadiens struck again to take a 2-0 lead, barely three and a half minutes remained. "Unbelievable," murmured one waiter, turning away from the bank of televisions in disgust.
Just when it seemed like midnight for the Caps, Laich scored, there was pandemonium in the bar. Allowing themselves to hope one more time, the fans roared as Washington prepared to skate the last 1:44 with a 6-on-4 advantage.
Surely Oveckhin and Co. could get the tying goal, read a hundred upturned faces. It's not going to end like this.
Later, after the Caps failed to score and the Canadiens completed their remarkable series comeback behind Halak's 41 saves, a group of red-clad Washington fans stood silently outside the arena. Finally, one of them said to the kid in the group, "You can tell your friends you saw history today."
He paused, the words turning to lead on his tongue. Finally: "This is the first time ever a No. 1 seed lost a 3-1 lead to a No. 8 seed."
On this night, for this tortured fan base, history was synonymous with heartbreak.
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