Capital of heartbreak

Washington, you might want to sit this one out

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We Clevelanders have a habit of thinking that we cornered the sports heartbreak market a long time ago. That’s the product of 50 years without a championship of any kind. It is the sheer volume of Cleveland torment — each of the three teams contribute multiple chapters to the story — that makes us believe that our misery is unique. And it probably is.

But man, oh man, have those Washington Capitals fans felt some pain.

Wednesday night, the Capitals lost in overtime to the Rangers, the latest indignity in the now familiar process of blowing 3-1 playoff leads. Alex Ovechkin had confidently guaranteed victory. The Capitals took a one-goal lead in the final game. None of it mattered. It was the FIFTH TIME the Capitals have had a 3-1 lead in a playoff series and lost. Throw in the time they blew a 2-0 playoff series in a best-of-five, and you are dealing with a team that crushes the soul. The Cleveland hearbreak surrounds you more. The Chicago Cubs’ heartbreak is more ancient. The Buffalo heartbreak comes with three feet of snow (bad) and a beef on weck (good).

These Capitals, however, bring their own special brand of pain.

It began in 1985. That was perhaps the first really good Capitals team, with Mike Gartner and Bob Carpenter both scoring 50 goals (what a different time; this year Ovechkin was the league’s only 50-goal scorer) and Hall of Famer Scott Stevens crushing everyone in sight. They had the New York Islanders down 2-0 in a best-of-five. No NHL team had ever blown a 2-0 lead before in a best-of-five series. It did not seem possible.

The Islanders won Game 3, and then came the wild fourth game of the series in New York. The Capitals had a two-goal lead going into the third period. The Islanders — who had been to five consecutive Stanley Cup Finals — predictably responded with ferocious hockey. “Nobody will ever question our character,” Islanders coach Al Arbour said when it was over. Islanders captain Bryan Trottier scored the go-ahead goal off a face-off. The puck slid through the legs of Caps goalie Al Jensen with 68 seconds left.

“I threw it at the net and lucked out,” Trottier said.

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But there was more. With 30 seconds left, the Islanders’ Paul Boutilier knocked the goal off its moorings during a wild Capitals scramble … this gave Bob Carpenter a penalty shot against the Capitals’ nemesis, goalie Billy Smith. Carpenter was as good a penalty-shot scorer as anyone in the NHL. And he was stuffed.

“I don’t know what it was that made him miss,” Capitals coach Bryan Murray grumbled to the assembled media. “Maybe it was the pressure.”

That set up Game 5 back in Washington. It was one day after the classic Marvin Hagler-Thomas Hearns three-round-fight frenzy, and the nation was still catching its breath. Billy Smith stopped 39 shots and the Islanders knocked out the Capitals, 2-1. “There must be something about Billy Smith,” Murray said after the game. “We still haven’t solved the mystery.”

Of course, nobody knew then that the Capitals were doomed to repeat this trauma again and again and again. The Capitals then were a young team, a promising team. This disappointment could have just been growing pains.

Only … it wasn’t. Two years after the Billy Smith loss, the Capitals again had the Islanders on the brink — this time 3-1 in a best-of-seven. Those were no longer the indomitable Islanders. They were beat up and on the decline — Washington crushed them in Game 4 to take a seemingly insurmountable lead. The Capitals even had a secret weapon, rookie goalie Bob Mason, who seemed to have some sort of of hex over New York. He had won each of his first four games at Nassau Coliseum.

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But, as you already know, the Islanders came back, beating the magical Bob Mason in Game 6 to set up one of hockey’s all-time games. The Islanders came into the game with three of their all-time players— Mike Bossy, Dennis Potvin and Brent Sutter — out with injury. The Capitals COULD NOT lose.

Three numbers tell the tale of the Islanders’ ridiculous four-overtime victory in Washington that day.

73 — Number of saves Islanders goalie Kelly Hrudey made that Saturday night. “I’m not even sure what I’m feeling now,” he would say after the game.

129 — Number of minutes played — in actual time, the game lasted more than seven hours.

35 — The distance, in feet, of the shot New York’s Pat Lafontaine flung at the goal, a seemingly harmless thing that, in the end, proved to be the game-winner. “I heard it,” Mason said. “But I never saw anything.”

“I’m sure the winners are feeling like they just came out of a dream, and so do we,” Washington’s Gaetan Duchesne told The New York Times. “But I can’t imagine myself waking up tomorrow.”

Moving on: In 1992, the Capitals were up 3-1 on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. In Game 4, Washington’s Dino Ciccarelli scored four goals as the Caps destroyed Pittsburgh, 7-2. Once more, there seemed little doubt how the series would end. All the papers reported that Pittsburgh had never come back from a 3-1 deficit.

Game 5, the Penguins turned up the intensity and won, 5-2. “I guess the defending Stanley Cup Champions aren’t going to let it go that easily,” Washington’s John Druce said.

Game 6, Mario Lemieux scored two goals and added three assists and the Penguins overcame a deficit to win, 6-4. “This isn’t where we wanted to be when it was 3-1,” an uneasy Capitals coach, Terry Murray, nervously told the press.

Then, in Game 7, once again in Landover, Md., Lemieux scored a shorthanded goal, the Capitals managed a measly 19 shots on goal, and it was the same old song. “We were beaten by one guy,” Murray lamented afterward. “Lemieux was just too good.”

By the time the Capitals built their 3-games-to-1 lead on Pittsburgh in 1995 — and this was a Penguins team WITHOUT Lemieux — nobody really believed they were going to win. This is how it goes with sports agony. The first time Buffalo lost a Super Bowl, the feeling was there would be other chances. The fourth time they lost, the realization settled: There ARE no other chances. Flukes become trends before you know it.

So even when Washington beat Pittsburgh, 6-2 — and the Penguins were frantically changing goalies in order to change their luck — there was, among Capitals fans (and probably players), a nervousness that would not normally be there. When Washington lost Game 5 in overtime — “They played a desperate hockey game,” Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld said — that nervousness became a sense of doom.

The Penguins won the next game, 7-1 (“I think we forgot to bring our kryptonite,” Schoenfeld said) and then came the inevitable Game 7 Capitals defeat — 3-0, if you want want the gory details.

The Associated Press lead:

PITTSBURGH — Even without Mario Lemieux, no playoff lead is safe against the Pittsburgh Penguins — especially when the Washington Capitals hold it.

Well, that seems unnecessarily harsh. So that makes the first four times the Capitals lost three straight playoff games when on the brink of victory. The fifth time happened in 2010 against Montreal. That was Washington’s best ever team, a 121-point dynamo that scored 40 more goals than any team in the NHL. The Canadiens, meanwhile, had been outscored for the season. It’s unlikely too many fans were thinking about the Capitals’ anguished history with 3-1 playoff leads. This seemed a different kind of Washington team and a different kind of series.

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In Game 5, beleaguered Montreal goalie Jaroslav Halak stopped 37 shots — including Ovechkin from point-blank range — and the Canadiens shocked the Capitals in Washington. Ovechkin had cracked that he saw Halak’s arm shaking after he gave up a goal in Game 3, suggesting nervousness would overwhelm the Montreal netminder. It didn’t turn out that way.

Then Montreal dominated Game 6, setting up yet another Game 7 in Washington, and by this point, yes, the Capitals’ history was palpable. Ovechkin had a goal disallowed after the referee ruled that Mike Knuble had interfered with the goalie (Montreal had a goal disallowed later). The arm-shaking Halak made 41 saves. The Capitals went home one more time.

“I would have bet my house that they wouldn’t have beaten us three games in a row,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said.

“We’re all kind of speechless now,” the Capitals’ Matt Bradley said. “We have no one to blame but ourselves.”

And all this leads to Wednesday’s final indignity, the sixth time it has happened to Washington and its fans. When New York’s Derek Stepan scored the overtime game-winner to clinch the Rangers’ comeback, there just wasn’t much left to say. The Capitals have blown these playoff leads as underdogs and huge favorites, with scrappy teams and high-voltage ones. They’re all different and, yet, all the same too.

“An empty feeling,” Washington center Nicklas Backstrom called it. Yes. It’s an empty feeling that has lasted for 30 years.