Wednesday night will be a busy one for fans of Washington, D.C. sports as both the Capitals and Wizards continue their playoff series, both currently playing in the quarterfinals of their respective postseason tournaments. The Wizards will play a pivotal Game 5 against the Hawks in Atlanta, while the Capitals aim to break through in a decisive Game 7 against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra, 7 p.m. ET).
The Capitals enter a do-or-die situation that could go two very different ways. If they lose, it will be an all-too-familiar result, as the Caps are 4-12 with a chance to clinch a playoff series since Alex Ovechkin was drafted in 2004. Ten separate times in franchise history have they blown a two-game playoff series lead, just as they did this series after starting out at 3-1. The Rangers also beat the Caps in Game 7s in both 2012 and 2013.
But if the Caps win, they will advance to the Eastern Conference Final, or in other words the semifinals of their playoff bracket. No major D.C. sports team — the Capitals, Nationals, Redskins or Wizards — has accomplished that feat in 17 years. The last to do so were the Caps, who were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.
If the Capitals beat New York on Wednesday, they will become just the second D.C. team to reach the semis since the 1991 Redskins who won the Super Bowl on Jan. 26, 1992. That means only once in the last 23 years has a D.C. major professional sports team been in the final four of their league.
The 17 years of waiting for D.C. sports fans is the longest drought in American professional sports for cities with at least three teams in the big four leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL). Nineteen total cities fit the three-team category and Houston is closest, as they last reached the semis with the Astros in 2005.
Falling short is one thing, exactly how close Washington’s teams have come to reaching the semifinals makes it even more remarkable.
This year marks the fourth time since 1998 the Capitals have made the quarterfinals of the NHL playoffs and the third time they’ve been a game away from advancing further. The Nationals have twice been to the quarterfinals of the MLB playoffs during that stretch, so have the Redskins in the NFL. The Wizards are in the quarterfinals this year for the third time since 1998. That’s 11 total appearances between them and so far none have advanced.
The Nationals were a strike away in 2012 against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the NL Division Series before a historic collapse by their bullpen. The Nats blew a six-run lead that night, the first team in MLB history to do so in a winner-take-all playoff game. They won an MLB-best 98 wins that season, but could not get the final out they needed as closer Drew Storen allowed four runs in the ninth inning.
Nationals Insider Mark Zuckerman covered that fateful game for CSNwashington.com and this week recalled the experience.
“I think at first fans were just thrilled to have a really good local baseball team, one that could bring postseason baseball back to the District for the first time in eight decades. But once the NLCS was within reach — really within reach by the ninth inning of Game 5 in 2012 — simply making the playoffs didn’t feel like enough anymore. Local fans found out what so many in places like Boston and Chicago and others had known forever: Nothing stings worse than a heartbreaking loss in October.
“But I do think that experience — coming so close, then seeing it slip away — is necessary in the bigger picture. When the day comes and the Nationals win something in October — and that day will most definitely come eventually — it’ll be even sweeter because of the heartache that came before it.”
The Redskins were a field goal away from reaching the NFC Championship in January of 2000. Brad Johnson led the Skins’ offense down the field in Tampa against the Buccaneers and called a timeout to set up a 51-yard field goal attempt for Brett Conway with 1:17 left in the fourth quarter. But a botched snap by Dan Turk prevented Conway from getting a kick off and the Redskins lost 14-13.
Comcast SportsNet’s Brian Mitchell played in that game and ran the opening kickoff of the second half back 100 yards for a touchdown. He recalled the ending in a conversation with CSNwashington.com:
“I remember Dan Turk, God bless his soul. The ball rolled back, the snap to the kicker. [Brad Johnson] couldn’t hold onto it,” he said. “I felt that team right there was about as good as any I’ve been around.”
Mitchell’s co-host on SportsTalk Live, CSN’s Chick Hernandez covered the game and vividly remembers the final sequence.
“End of the game, I was in the endzone getting ready for a standup to say that Brett Conway kicked the game winner. I had my back to the play as I was standing under the goalpost, then I saw the crowd begin to cheer out of control, I looked back and saw the Bucs celebrating. Dan Turk’s snap rolled back to Brad Johnson, the kick never happened, end of game 14-13. Never saw a man more down after the game than Dan Turk. He didn’t fly back with the team. He just walked the streets of Tampa that night,” Hernandez said.
The Capitals have plenty of playoff heartbreak in their long history, including a historic loss in 2010 when they became the first NHL team to lose to an eighth seed as a No. 1 seed after holding a 3-1 series lead.
The Redskins Insider at CSNWashington.com, Tarik El-Bashir, covered the Capitals for The Washington Post for seven seasons. He looked back on those days this week:
“I’ve followed the Caps since I was kid playing hockey on local rinks in Montgomery County. I was also lucky enough to cover the team from 2005-2011 for The Washington Post. So, yeah, I know a thing or two about playoff disappointments.
“The first round, Game 7 overtime loss to the Flyers in 2008 was tough. The Game 7 semifinal loss to the Pens a year later was a gut punch. Ditto for Tampa Bay’s second round sweep in 2011. But to me, the biggest letdown in recent years came in 2010, when the Caps blew a 3-1 quarterfinal series lead against the Canadiens.
“The Caps were Presidents’ Trophy winners that year, racking up an amazing 121 points behind an unbelievably prolific offense. I thought Alex Ovechkin and [company] were finally going to win the Stanley Cup—and I know I wasn’t alone.
“Then Jaroslav Halak silenced the Caps’ Young Guns and, like that, the season was over.”
The Wizards are locked in a tied playoff series despite seeing star point guard John Wall go down with a serious wrist injury in Game 1. This is the third time they’ve come this far during the 17-year period, but many feel it is their best opportunity yet to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Steve Buckhantz, the Wizards’ play-by-play voice for Comcast SportsNet, believes this could be the year. Buckhantz is a D.C. native who has been covering local teams since 1984 and calling Wizards games since 1997.
“With the way all the stars have aligned, it looks like it is their best chance,” he explained.
“In the Gilbert Arenas years when they got the second round, they had to play Miami. That was a foregone conclusion. The way this has worked out here, where they played Toronto. The fact they swept them still boggles my mind. To me that was so impressive. It can’t be overstated how huge that was to win four games and sweep that team. That’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen so far.”
Buckhantz is optimistic about both the Wizards and the Capitals as they try to break Washington’s recent run of playoff misfortune. He thinks there is something special going on between the teams, as players from the Wizards, Nationals and Capitals have been spotted at each other’s games.
“If you are a Washington sports fan, you just have to be beside yourself right now,” he said. “To see those athletes, these really prolific and professional athletes come and cheer for each other. I’ve never seen it before. To me, it’s a beautiful dynamic.”
Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman also has hope for the Caps and Wizards, despite having both seen and lived through the city’s playoff disappointments. He grew up in Virginia, went to UVa and has spent his entire MLB career in Washington.
“D.C.’s one of those towns where there’s so many other things going on. Sports are kind of, unless you get to the final four of your league, something that doesn’t get really much play until then. But what’s happening now is good. It’s good for the city. It’s good for sports. People are excited. It’s been a long time. Some of the fans are pretty frustrated, I guess,” he said.
Mitchell was a member of D.C.’s last world championship team, the 1991 Redskins, and has witnessed most of what has transpired since while working in the media as a television and radio analyst. He too thinks this year could be different.
“This city has been very supportive of those two teams and have been behind them. We’ve had the Caps and the Wiz elevate their game and play a lot better. The next step is to get to the conference championship. I think it would do wonders,” he said.
“When I first got here with the football team, we went and won the Super Bowl. People have been looking for that type of thing ever since. Now you have two teams right on the brink of it. Somebody has to get over the hump. It seems bleak on both sides because John Wall is out and the Caps have to go to another seventh game, but ultimately I think both of them can get it done. And if they do, you will find out exactly what this city is about. They love winners, believe me.”
The Capitals understand their recent history and hope it all ends on Wednesday.
“The culture is different. The buzz around the city is a little bit different. We’re doing good, the Wizards are doing good, the Nats are doing good, a new culture with the Redskins coming up. So, I feel like there is more of a buzz around the city,” defenseman Karl Alzner said.
“We would really love to be the team that helps get us to the next level. It’s one of our goals, to do that for the city.”
Through 17 years, the opportunities have been there, just like they will be on Wednesday night. Yet time and time again D.C. teams have fallen short. Someday one of them will break through, and for a town that has suffered so much failure in the playoffs, the celebration will be extraordinary.
Is tonight the night?
(This article also appeared on CSNWashington.com.)