Death, Taxes and the Capitals Choking

March 28, 2012

Ben Franklin once said that the only two sure things in life are death and taxes.

Surely if Ben had lived to the year 2012 he could add this one: the Washington Capitals will always come up short in a big game.

Last night against the Buffalo Sabres wasn’t exactly a Game 7, but it was a battle for 8th place in the Eastern Conference. With only five games left in the season, the winner of this game was going to have a leg up for the last playoff berth. The Capitals players talked about how it was a big game; hell, Coach Dale Hunter said it was like the seventh game of the playoffs.

So as they have so often in game sevens, the Capitals choked. Big time. Again.

I’ll at least say this for the Caps, at least in recent years, when they’ve lost a big game, they’ve left no doubt. Unlike the Ravens, the Caps get the heartbreak out of the way quickly, giving you plenty of time to take out the garbage, read a book or head to the bar for postgame drinks.

The benchmark of Caps big game collapses is of course the 6-2 Game 7 thrashing at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09, and last night’s 5-1 loss to Buffalo was eerily similar.

The Sabres jumped ahead 2-0 and never let up. The Sabres were playing playoff hockey while the Caps looked like they were playing pickup hockey. There was no urgency, no jump, no nothing from the home team. By the way they played, you’d think the Caps were the Columbus Blue Jackets and had been eliminated from playoff contention months ago.

Where to begin with this game?

There was overmatched goalie Braden Holtby trying and failing to match Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.

There was Hunter, who has been in over his head since being named coach.

There was captain and superstar Alex Ovechkin fumbling the puck at the blue line on the power play, leading to a killer shorthanded goal by Buffalo’s Jason Pominville. One play pretty much summing up what is appearing to be a team's lost season.

There was career minor leaguer Keith Aucoin skating on said power play.

Defenseman Mike Green was invisible offensively like he’d pretty much been all season.

There were the Caps, giving up odd-man rushes as if it were a warm-up drill.

There were the Caps, as they have all year, struggling to clear their own end, committing senseless turnovers and throwing passes three feet wide of their targets.

I actually don’t begrudge Hunter for playing Holtby as some Caps fans will. Holtby was coming off a 3-0 shutout of Minnesota and had performed well recently. Hunter felt like he was riding a hot hand. How was he to know the young goalie would morph back into the guy who has struggled at minor league Hershey this year? What makes anyone think Michal Neuvirth or the injured Tomas Vokoun would have done better? They wouldn’t have. Not with the slipshod way the Caps played defense.

Losing games like this is what the Washington Capitals have done for more than a quarter century. Throw out the playoff run of 1998 and you can practically count on one hand the amount of big games this team has won.

But it would take the hands of the population of Wyoming to count up all the gory losses the Caps have foisted on their fans. Hell, this franchise is working on destroying the will of a second generation of fans. A generation of fans that was thinking this club could be a dynasty just two short years ago.

Having been around this franchise long enough, I knew what kind of hubris came with that sort of talk. Some in the Caps blogosphere thumbed their noses at the way the Chicago Blackhawks traded away half their Stanley Cup-winning roster due to salary cap constraints. They said we were different; we were building for the long term, not mortgaging the future for one Cup, making the smart trades and building through the draft. We weren’t looking for one Cup; we were trying to win MULTIPLE cups.

My argument at the time was, let’s just win one, like the Blackhawks did, and then we can talk dynasty. I’ve watched the Caps gag away enough games in my 25 years watching them that I had to channel my inner Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo at the dynasty talk. One time, I said. I just want to see them win it one time. I didn’t care about dynasties. Just once, I’d like to see this team overcome their choke-happy past and actually win.

It would be easy I suppose to get angry and discouraged at the Caps failure, but quite frankly, it’s almost comical. The Caps coming up short in a big game as about as reliable as the sun rising.

It’s just a matter of how they’re going to do it, and last night’s game with Buffalo was a doozy.

You had Ovechkin and Holtby fumbling the puck leading to Sabres goals.

You had a two-on-one leading to a goal.

You had the Caps failing to keep Drew Stafford out of the crease, just like they failed to keep Sidney Crosby out of the crease in that Pittsburgh series, the need for a tough, physical defenseman still there.

You had undersized Matheiu Perrault centering the Caps second line; the need for a reliable second-line center still there, just like it was three years ago.

At some level, I’m actually hoping this Caps team misses the playoffs so I don’t have to watch this particular version of the team ever again. Look, as a sports fan, there are times when even your own team is annoying, difficult to watch and you just want them to go away. The 2009 Ravens were a team like that. So were the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles.

The 2011-12 Washington Capitals are a team that is unpleasant to watch, especially when Ovechkin isn’t on the ice, since no one else on the roster can create offense. It is a team that sucks you in, like when they looked good against Detroit and Minnesota, and then kills you when you think they’ve figured it out, like when they blew a 3-0 lead to Winnipeg.

Or like last night against Buffalo. It’s fitting that the Sabres did the deed, since they were also the ones that closed the book on the Bruce Boudreau Era with a similar 5-1 thrashing. Just like that game, the Sabres played tough, desperate hockey, while the Caps looked like a team trying to get their coach fired.

Yep, just another big game performance from the Washington Capitals.

  • Ryan Mavity has been a reporter with the Cape Gazette since February 2007. He covers the city of Rehoboth Beach, Baltimore Ravens football and Delaware State University football. He lives in Georgetown with his wife, Rachel and their son, Alex.

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