- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 6, 2018

Can you remember the last time a major four Washington sports team advanced to a conference championship game or series?

You can’t if you’re a college-aged student. Not if you didn’t follow sports in the District before the turn of the millennium. Essentially, not if you weren’t around before the year 1998.

The Washington Capitals played in the Stanley Cup Finals that season, only to be swept by Detroit. Those were the days of Peter Bondra, Adam Oates and Joe Juneau. This was so long ago, the franchise was going through its phase of not using the color red in its uniforms and logo.

In the 20 years since, the Capitals, Redskins, Nationals and Wizards have not advanced even once to their penultimate playoff round. Washington is the only city with at least three major pro teams to fail to reach at least one playoff semifinals since 1998.

It’s the so-called “D.C. Sports Curse,” and the Capitals are the latest team that can break it. Leading their series 3-2, they have two chances to close out their longtime rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, starting Monday in Game 6 of their second-round series.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz had a simple message regarding the city’s curse.

“Just get behind us. Please, that’s all I ask,” he said Sunday. “We’re the ones playing. Trust me. I can tell you there’s not a player, a coach, a trainer, ownership, GM who is not trying to do everything they can to win this series. … Get behind us, help push us forward and we’re going to give you our best.”

Every team has had chances to break the curse, but in closeout games — single playoff games that would advance a team to its conference or league finals if it won — the four clubs are a combined 0-13 since 1998.

If the Capitals beat Pittsburgh one more time, they’ll render the following list a relic of history. But if they lose Games 6 and 7, the curse will live on.

Capitals: 0-6

Hockey has become synonymous with heartbreak here. The Capitals have advanced to the second round six times since 2009 and lost all six series. They had six “win-and-in” games, too, but they were not spread across the series evenly.

That’s due to 2015, possibly the biggest disappointment on this list despite the absence of the franchise’s Penguin bugaboo. The Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead over the New York Rangers, losing three straight opportunities to close out the series. This included two 2-1 overtime losses at Madison Square Garden in Games 5 and 7.

Everyone knows what has happened since. The Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy the next two seasons and lost to the Penguins in the second round both times. Last year, they came back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 at home, but lost it 2-0.

Nationals: 0-4

The Nationals haven’t been in town for the entire span of the curse, yet they’ve spent this decade becoming a reliable October disappointment. Washington is 0-4 in National League Division Series this decade. That included blowing a 2-1 lead over the Dodgers in 2016 by losing consecutive one-run games.

But what’s freshest in fans’ minds is last season’s Game 5 against the Chicago Cubs. The wild 9-8 loss at Nationals Park ended Dusty Baker’s tenure as manager, but at least the Metro stayed open long enough to take sobbing baseball fans home.

Redskins: 0-2

Frankly, football rarely has been good enough to get people’s hopes up before letting them down. The Redskins have appeared in the NFC Divisional Round twice since the curse began. The bigger disappointment came in 1999 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Washington led 13-0 midway through the third quarter but gave up two touchdowns in the final 17:03 and lost by a point.

In 2005, the Redskins ran into a better Seattle Seahawks team in the divisional round. Seattle beat them 20-10 on its way to a Super Bowl XL appearance.

Wizards: 0-1

When John Wall hit a towering 3-pointer in the final seconds of the Wizards’ Game 6 against the Boston Celtics last season, of course hoops fans were dancing in the streets. Perhaps no single moment on this list injected more optimism and ecstasy into the city’s fan base.

But the Wizards fell 115-105 in Game 7 in their only “close-out opportunity” of the past 20 years. Washington also made the second round in 2015, 2014 and 2005, but never came as close to advancing.

What about us?

It’s important to remember that the curse has only affected teams from the four major leagues: the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Washington fans hungry for a championship contender have had other options under their noses.

D.C. United has won four MLS Cups, including two during the span of the curse — 1999 and 2004 — but they are one of the worst teams in the league this season. And the Washington Mystics made the WNBA Semifinals just last year, defying the curse, but they haven’t won a league title yet.

So, can you remember the last time a major four Washington sports team advanced to a conference championship game or series?

You might not have to think as hard after this week. With one more Capitals win, a 20-year curse will be lifted, and painful memories will be erased to make room for some joy.

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