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
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."
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.