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Caps Way-Back Machine: The Depression

With the hours counting down and me running out of ideas, let's take a spin back to April of 2003 to read Tom Boswell's column from the day the team's last playoff run ended.

You know, actually, this is bloody depressing. And one of the greatest things about this team is they're too young to remember Tony Williams, much less the 2003 playoffs. Maybe you shouldn't read it. Check back next hour for a more cheerful trip in the even-wayer-back machine.

After Meltdown, a Familiar Letdown
By Thomas Boswell

Next year, some of us may give up the Caps for Lent.

What happens to the Washington Capitals in the NHL playoffs almost every spring is a sin. But what befell them on this Easter Sunday may have matched, or even surpassed, any of the postseason misfortunes that have become the signature of the franchise for the last 20 years.

Can't this team ever find the least redemption or must it -- almost every season -- end with a sense of redoubled guilt? Yesterday, the Caps' season ended with a 2-1 loss in triple overtime to Tampa Bay. After starting the series with two wins in Florida against the young Lightning, the Capitals lost four straight games, three at home.

The magnitude, and bitterness, of that sweep is hard to grasp. In their entire 82-game season, the Caps never lost four games in a row. But in the first round of the playoffs, against an inexperienced foe that was on the verge of being knocked out, the Capitals surpassed themselves. If they didn't have bad luck, they wouldn't have any luck at all.

With four minutes left in regulation, the Caps led 1-0 and had the Lightning's offense in a bottle. A victory, forcing a seventh game, seemed almost certain. Then, a Tampa Bay shot deflected off the skate of the Caps' Ken Klee. The puck ricocheted across the rink directly onto the stick of 39-year-old Dave Andreychuk, who fired a shot past defenseless Olie Kolzig.

"That play was a microcosm of the whole series," said Kolzig, who had one of his most brilliant games of the season in defeat. "The puck bounced perfectly to [Andreychuk]. It couldn't have been passed any better."

In a split second of dumb luck -- "a fluke play," according to Lightning Coach John Tortorella -- the Caps' whole history rushed up to meet them.

For every occasion, the Capitals have some appropriately gruesome memory from their collective past. Fifteen years ago, the Caps lost perhaps the most infamous game in their history in four overtimes to the New York Islanders. The seventh game of that first-round series started on a Saturday night, but as many of us remember, the final goal by Pat Lafontaine didn't arrive until Sunday morning. Yes, by then it was Easter.

The final Lightning goal came on a power play after 44 minutes 3 seconds of extra play. And what might the Caps' penalty have been? Slashing, hooking, interference or some other aggressive, and thus perhaps forgivable, act?

No, the Caps had too many players on the ice. You're allowed five, plus a goalie. They, thanks to line-change confusion, had six, plus Kolzig.

The referees, who helped swing this series in Tampa Bay's direction with questionable calls in two earlier games, had no choice. The puck came directly to Jason Doig, the Cap coming over the boards. Instinctively, he grabbed it. If he'd let it go, perhaps the officials, who hate to call anything in overtime, would have looked the other way. But it was too blatant.

As soon as the words, "two-minute bench minor -- too many men on the ice" came over the public address system, the Caps seemed doomed. The perfect goofball penalty had arrived just in time to turn their gallant performance into something that could be mocked. Just 18 seconds later, Martin St. Louis -- the Caps' nemesis throughout this series -- fired the puck over Kolzig's left shoulder to end what had been a thrillingly even game.

But then the Capitals always have a nemesis of some sort in April, don't they? A hot goalie they can't solve. Or a team, like the Pittsburgh Penguins, that they can never seem to solve. Or, now, the tiny, darting St. Louis.

"Things just happen. I don't know why," said Kolzig, "Why haven't the Red Sox won the World Series in how many years? For some reason, every series there is something we can't control that happens and seems to turn the series around for the opposition. Things just happen."

A depressing fatalism certainly hangs over the Caps in every NHL mind. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy all too often. When the Lightning fell behind with those two home losses, Tortorella immediately went for the predictable low blow, talking about the Caps' long history of blowing leads in the playoffs. He didn't use the word "choke," but he might as well have.

In victory, Tortorella actually apologized for the verbal strategy. "I do not want to disrespect the Capitals in any way by what I said [after Game 2]. But we needed to try to take some pressure off our team. . . . As a coach, you'll do whatever you have to do," Tortorella said.

Of course, with the Capitals, sometimes it seems like all you have to do to derail them when they have an "insurmountable" lead is to say "Booo!"

Sometimes, this Caps cavalcade of misfortune almost gets to be too much to bear. How much pain and bad luck can you watch and call it entertainment? That's why many fans simply view these annual disasters as comedy. It's a defense mechanism against appreciating how hard, and well, the Capitals sometimes play, even when they end up in their normal role.

"This is hard to take because we really played well. Our team was outstanding and our veterans played their butts off. It was a great series," said grim-jawed general manager George McPhee. "The two players who have been here the longest -- Calle Johansson and Peter Bondra -- told me, 'This is the best team we have ever had here.' "

Certainly it was one of the most talented and highly paid. "I'm disappointed. You are so tired [by the third overtime] that you don't have enough energy to lift the puck," said Jaromir Jagr, the legendary Penguins great who was virtually non-existent as an offensive force in the four defeats as the Lightning pounded him constantly. "It's up to ownership what they want to do, what direction they want to go."

For owner Ted Leonsis, that may be a stumper. McPhee insists that rookie coach Bruce Cassidy, after needing 25 games to get acclimated to the NHL, did a fine job on the bench. "We have no issues there," McPhee said.

As much as anything, the Caps may need to fight against the sense of fatalism that has surrounded the team for so long. In 1998, when the Caps reached the Stanley Cup finals, Coach Ron Wilson made a point of facing the Caps Curse publicly with his smart-aleck comments. Wilson often acted as if the Curse were in the room with him and needed to be insulted repeatedly.

Now, in just one year after Wilson's departure, The Thing is back in the room. Cap after Cap explained, after this defeat, that the refs had really turned this series against them. "They called a four-minute penalty that's not in the rule book," said McPhee of one game-deciding call against Kolzig.

"We got jobbed [by the officials] in Game 3. The penalty on Jagr was totally uncalled-for," said Kolzig, his head still three games in the past just minutes after this game had ended. "Again, we got screwed on a call in Game 5."

Somehow, the Capitals need to spit in the eye of every bad break and every debatable call they meet in the playoffs. Otherwise, they will always seem haunted when they reach the postseason. They will always have that extra ghost of past failure with them. In that sense, the Capitals always have "too many men on the ice."

By Dan Steinberg  |  April 11, 2008; 9:14 AM ET
Categories:  Caps  
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Next: Caps Way-Back Machine: Tony's Zamboni


Are you going to write a "choking dogs" column too at some point during the playoffs?

Posted by: Matt C | April 11, 2008 9:48 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: | April 11, 2008 10:01 AM | Report abuse

I refuse to read this crap. This is a new day damn it.


Posted by: Go Skins Go | April 11, 2008 10:04 AM | Report abuse

This isnt a walk down memory lane I wanted to do this morning. Thanks alot!

Posted by: Anonymous | April 11, 2008 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Brutal. Just brutal.

Posted by: Reader Glenn | April 11, 2008 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Dan, I love your stuff and I understand that you posted this as a "look how far we've come" sort of deal, but it's just depressing. I couldn't read beyond the first line.

Posted by: HolyOlie | April 11, 2008 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Bruce Cassidy! I had fogotten about him. He was hired with Hanlon in the wings. The whole story of the pre-salary dump/Ovie team lies with in the phrase, "Jaromir Jagr, the Penguins great who was virtually non-existant...". The Flyers will try and hit Ovie the same way. Unlike the Non-Great one, Ovie will hit back and score. There is no more Curse, if there were the Caps would not be in the playoffs.

Posted by: A Hardwick | April 11, 2008 10:42 AM | Report abuse

Just look at the crap call last thursday in the Lightning Game. The caps spit in the eye of that bad break and now they are here. We've been spittin in eyes all season.

Posted by: Scott | April 11, 2008 12:43 PM | Report abuse

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