If the Caps beat the Penguins on Monday night in Pittsburgh — or if they lose that game but beat the Penguins on Wednesday night in D.C. — two things will happen.
D.C. sports fans of a certain ilk will release one of the longest, deepest and most liberating exhalations of their lifetimes, thrilled beyond belief that one of the stupidest streaks in sports is finally over. That streak, of course, is the 20-year stretch during which the Caps, Nats, Redskins and Wizards all failed to advance to the final four of their sports, a stretch unmatched by any similar city and one that now occupies undue space inside all of our heads.
I've been writing about this stupidest of streaks for like a quarter of my life. So have many of my colleagues, and reporters for other local outlets, and 20-somethings on Twitter, and fans trying desperately to make their non-Washington pals understand why they are the way they are. It's the stupidest streak in sports because no one dreams of supporting a team that wins a stupid second-round series, and yet it's become Washington's particular obsession. Which brings me to,
People will make fun of D.C. sports fans for deliriously celebrating the end of this stupid streak.
This isn't even a question. Before the first fan has pressed send on the first postgame tweet about the end of this streak (if it happens, knock on wood, I'm not a dang psychic, I have no idea what's going to happen, I'm not trying to jinx anything, I'm just writing this on my night off because I'm too lazy to take up pickling and you can only watch so many episodes of "Criminal Minds" at a time, let me live), there will be a dissenting tweet already started, making the following points:
-- Deliriously celebrating a conference semifinal appearance is for losers.
-- Calling a season a success because of a second-round playoff victory is loser talk.
-- Loser talk is for losers.
And, especially, this: If the Caps go on to lose to the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals, fans who deliriously celebrated a conference semifinal appearance will feel silly, because no team — and certainly not a team that's knocked on the door of immortality as long as the Rock the Red Caps have — considers the pinnacle of achievement to be an unsuccessful appearance in the conference finals just to end some stupid streak also starring Drew Storen and Dan Turk and Kelly Olynyk.
No one daydreams about losing in the NLCS, or the NFC title game. You don't get a ring if you lose in the Eastern Conference finals. There will be no second-round parades, no Mission Accomplished banners on F Street. No one says of Dan Marino or Charles Barkley, "Well, they never won it all, but they sure did win the heck out of some AFC divisional round games or some conference title games."
Which is why my colleague Adam Kilgore wrote that "getting to the conference finals is such a lousy goal," and why my colleague Tim Bontemps chimed in to agree with Kilgore, and why my colleague David Larimer called this "an utterly phony goal," adding that "no franchise or player is defined by conference finals made."
Look, I can't tell anyone what to think. If you're a lifelong Caps fan who would find a win over the Penguins satisfying only because it's one step closer to the Stanley Cup Finals, that's fine. If you would derive extra satisfaction from beating Sidney Crosby and the Penguins but not from ending this streak, that's fine, too. If you don't care at all about the stupidest streak in sports, well, I'm not going to tell you to care about something you don't. It's like trying to convince someone to like pineapple vodka, mixed with whipped cream and scented by the inside of a sneaker. Either you do or you don't.
And five years ago, I probably would have scoffed at this stuff, too. But as the cascade of disappointments mushroomed and the drought grew absurd — 13 straight losses with this streak on the line — my standards changed and my expectations dipped. I just wanted to see something different. I wasn't alone.
"When you live in Losertown, you take the small victories where you can get them," John Auville of the Junkies said Monday morning. "You just do."
"I'll take the small victories," agreed Jason Bishop. "If we can somehow beat Pittsburgh and get over that hump, I'll take that, and I'll consider it a successful season."
So if you're a fan who can't wait to see this stupidest streak end, you're not alone. I've heard about this from so, so many fans over so, so many years, good and serious fans, who just want this to go away. They remember how close Washington has come: the 3-1 lead over the Rangers in 2015, the Storen game, the seventh inning in 2016, the Scherzer relief stint in 2017, Wall's broken wrist, all those Caps Game 7s. They just want something different, something new, something better.
Because these things are cumulative. The pain of that Nats Game 5 fiasco last year was magnified because of the losses in 2016 and 2014 and 2012. The Wizards' second-round loss to the Celtics was worse because of the second-round losses to the Hawks and Pacers. The Caps' second-round loss to the Penguins wouldn't have been so bad if the Caps hadn't previously lost to the Penguins, and before that to the Penguins, and before that to the Penguins, and then there was that one time they lost to the Penguins, and the Penguins, and the second round, and the Penguins, and the second round, and the Penguins, and I swear it sometimes makes you want to give up on the whole concept of sports fandom entirely and just concentrate on pickling. And if you root for all of those teams . . . I mean, I'm sorry.
(Let me pause here to say I eagerly await the emails and tweets from D.C. United fans furious with me for discounting their team's achievements. You know what, you're right. I retract this entire piece. In fact, I didn't publish it. You're just imagining this. Email me for more details.)
The sheer repetition of the thing became the real frustration: It's every year, every team, every season, with the same dumb roadblock. The past decade has been almost unmatched in D.C. sports history: the best Caps teams we've ever seen, the best baseball teams we've seen in 90 years, homegrown all-stars all over the place, absurd individual accomplishments, MVPs and Cy Youngs, one playoff appearance after another. And then the familiar thud, crashing into the same exact barrel falling down the same exact ladder.
Will Alex Ovechkin's career be considered complete if he finally climbs up the second-round ladder, only to get smashed by a conference finals fireball? Nah, man. We all know how this works. Will D.C. sports fans consider themselves whole if one of their favorite teams at last concludes a season in the final four instead of the final eight. Of course not. Are there fans now muttering, "If we could just get past the second round before I die … " as one of my colleagues mockingly asked this week? I don't know. Probably not.
But would it feel substantially better if this Caps team goes one round further? I think it would. It would feel like progress, like change. It would make this season different. It would let everyone exhale. This whole thing has been exhausting and annoying, repetitive and relentless. Above all, it's been stupid.