Four Aprils ago, when the Washington Capitals made the playoffs for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era, the possibilities seemed endless. I’m not just talking about hockey possibilities, Stanley Cups and the like. I’m talking about the opportunity for the Capitals — a team that played its games on ice — to move up, perhaps way up, in the Washington sports pecking order.
Remember what the spring of 2008 was like here in D.C? Remember how barren the sports landscape looked? Allow me to remind you:
• The Redskins had just lost Joe Gibbs for the second time to retirement, and Dan Snyder and Vinny Cerrato had spectacularly botched the coaching search, ending up with guy they originally intended to be the offensive coordinator, Jim Zorn. Two years later, the Redskins would lose to a Detroit Lions club that had dropped 19 straight. Not long after that, Sherman Lewis would forsake his bingo-calling duties at a seniors center to come to Washington and call the plays. That’s where the Redskins were at.
• The Wizards, after one last (brief) trip to the playoffs with their Big Three of Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, were about to step off a cliff. In the next four seasons, the club would post the second-worst record in the NBA … and the Big Three would be dispersed to Orlando, Cleveland and Dallas for players destined to be answers to trivia questions. That’s where the Wizards were at.
• The Nationals, still relative newcomers to town, were in the process of going 59-102 under Manny Acta — a prelude to their going 59-103 the following season and, for good measure, finishing last in their division the season after that. It was a Period of Darkness that seems likely to be remembered mostly for the antics of Nyjer Morgan and Jim Riggleman’s decision to quit as manager in mid-2011. Anyway, that’s where the Nats were at.
So in the spring of 2008, the Capitals had a lot of open ice in front of them. In a city where Redskins, Wizards and Nationals fans were covering their eyes, the Caps were about the only place you could safely look. Ovechkin was 22 (and in the midst of his greatest season, one in which he scored 65 goals and won his first Art Ross Trophy). Nicklas Backstrom, their slick-passing center, was 20. Mike Green (22), Alexander Semin (24) and Brooks Laich (24) weren’t exactly geezers, either.
Would the Capitals ever threaten the Redskins’ hegemony? Hard to imagine. But they certainly had the chance to become No. 2 in the hearts of Washingtonians, especially since they figured to be a top team for the next decade, at least. It was out there for them — sitting there like a loose puck in front of an open net.
But here it is four years later, and much has changed. The Caps haven’t been able to get past the second round of the playoffs; Ovie, though still young, isn’t the dynamic scorer he once was; and other dormant franchises in D.C. are starting to stir (and soon enough, they may be doing a good deal more than that).
The Redskins, after all, are on the verge of drafting a potentially elite quarterback — Heisman winner Robert Griffin III, probably, though they might have to “settle” for Andrew Luck. If you’ve seen either of these kids play, you know they’re capable of winning big in the NFL, provided their clubs surround them with enough talent. The day the Redskins select Griffin (or Luck) will be like the day the Capitals selected Ovechkin. Their future will be that bright.
Then there are the Nationals. Going into Monday night’s game, they were leading the NL East at 7-3 and had the lowest ERA in baseball (1.99). Stephen Strasburg, the Man Who Would Be Walter Johnson, is throwing aspirins again after Tommy John surgery, and Bryce Harper, their slugger of the future, is taking his final preparatory hacks in Triple-A. Considering their youth, the Nats could have a nice, long run themselves — right into the ‘20s.
For the Capitals, in other words, it may suddenly get very crowded in the Washington sports market. If Griffin proves to be the real deal and the Nationals mature into a contender, the Caps may look back on these past four years and shake their heads … at what might have been. You could even argue that the Wizards, with the addition of another high lottery pick and who knows what else, might eventually climb out of the abyss.
At any rate, time was definitely a-wastin’ for the Capitals as they prepared for Game 3 of their series with the Boston Bruins on Monday night. The opportunity was still there for them, sort of, but the window was closing fast — faster than anyone could have foreseen in 2008, when they were the only one of the four major teams in D.C. that was registering much of a pulse.