There is a lot more at stake here for everyone in the Eastern Conference semifinal between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins than just a second-round Stanley Cup Playoffs series.
The culture of the Capitals is at stake here. The culture of sports in the city of Washington is at stake.
If history is a word that Capitals players hate to hear, they couldn’t have drawn a worse opponent in this series than the Penguins — the rival that most defines the pain of postseason failure that haunts the franchise. Washington has faced Pittsburgh eight times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and has lost seven of them — mostly painful, gut-wrenching losses.
It began in 1991, when the Capitals lost in five games to the Penguins in the Patrick Division Finals on the way to Pittsburgh’s first of three Stanley Cup championships. Then came the 3-1 series lead the Capitals blew against the Penguins in the following year. Two years later, Washington would win its only playoff series against Pittsburgh, 4-2, in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
SEE ALSO: Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik stabilize Capitals defense after years of turnover
After that, it has been a series of either beatdowns or heartbreaks at the hands of the Penguins: Letting another 3-1 series lead fade in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in 1995; a 2-0 lead blown in 1996; defeats in 2000 and 2001; and, in 2009, losing in seven games after taking a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals — the only chapter in this hockey tragedy that Alex Ovechkin has been part of.
There have been other playoff collapses that are part of the history of the Capitals, but none represents agonizing history of postseason failure than the Penguins. They are the New York Yankees to the Boston Red Sox — not as long a list of tormenting losses, but still representing the same symbol of frustration for this franchise, its fans and the city.
That’s why winning this series would mean so much to so many people — far more than simply an Eastern Conference semifinal series win.
“You can change the whole culture by beating these guys,” said Kevin Millar, co-host of “International Talk” on MLB Network and a first baseman for the Red Sox in 2004, when they rallied from a 3-0 deficit in the American League Championship Series to defeat the Yankees, win the World Series and end 86 years of pain for a franchise, its fans, and its city.
“As a player, you can’t let the history affect you,” Millar said. “You can’t let what has happened in the past affect your perspective as a player.
“Now the city, the people who have been there in the organization for a long time, that’s different. They are going to be affected that what has happened before. But, you have a chance to change that. You can change the whole culture by beating these guys. The pressure comes off you.”
Now, part of that culture change in Boston included going on to sweep the St. Louis Cardinals in four games to finally win the World Series. Still, the weight had been lifted by burying the Yankees, who beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the ALCS the year before on Aaron Boone’s walk-off home run.
A Stanley Cup would obviously change everything for the Capitals, but winning this series — and burying the Penguins — would lift the weight on the shoulders of the organization, its fans and the city.
It would go a long way to changing the culture of the expectation of loss.
Fans have been beaten down to expect the worst. The Flyers, a team that shouldn’t even wear the same skates as the Capitals, put the city on edge after winning two games once Washington took a 3-0 lead in the series.
The Flyers would have had to have beaten the Capitals — the best team in the NHL this year, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy — in four consecutive games to have won that series. Yet, the fear was there.
It’s what we have come to expect. We see the Redskins sign Josh Norman and we see Albert Haynesworth. We see a closer enter a Nationals postseason game and we expect a blown save.
The Wizards? Name your expectation of failure.
A win over Pittsburgh would represent a different outcome. It wouldn’t be a Stanley Cup, but for a team that hasn’t reached the Eastern Conference Final since 1998 — never in the Ovechkin era — and a coach in Barry Trotz who in has never made it there as well in nine playoff runs, a series win over the Penguins would change something.
It would change expectations.