While the Capitals prepare to face the Bruins in Game 7 of a hard-fought series, more than a first-round playoff winner will be determined tonight. Now in the 14th year of General Manager George McPhee's oversight, the team faces a crossroads with the outcome of tonight's game. As ownership and management have preached patience to the fans (and prayed for it, in the face of escalating ticket prices), the time is now for this iteration of the Caps to produce a memorable victory and, more importantly, to cement a new identity that combines the best elements of Capitals teams past and more recent.
A rather undecorated franchise, with but one unsuccessful Stanley Cup final in its 38 years, it's not a stretch to say there have been relatively few defining moments in the Caps' existence. In fact, they probably can be counted on one hand:
September, 1982: David Poile pulls off the Langway trade.
April 16, 1988: Hunter's overtime goal vs. Philly, and the Caps' first playoff series win.
Postseason, 1998: Dominating the Dominator and reaching the Finals, and Abe Pollin sells high.
Summer, 2004: Caps win the draft lottery and select Alex Ovechkin.
March-April, 2008: The (Regular Season) Comeback.
That's about it.
On paper, 2011-2012 was supposed to be The Year. And it started out that way, with mostly shrewd personnel maneuvering in a busy offseason and a whip-smart 7-0-0 opening run that made even the most cynical Washington backer crack a crooked grin of optimism. But credit goes to the Rink's artist formerly known as F&B with a too-prescient acrostic, calling it earlier than every hockey journo on the continent that things were not as swell as they appeared. And late in November of 2011, with the team playing aimlessly and its captain in a funk, punctuated by an alleged epithet about the relative merits of Haagen Dazs on the waistline, George McPhee pulled the plug on the most successful coach in franchise history, dismissing Bruce Boudreau, the Jack Adams winner and his .611 winning percentage. At its apex under Bruce, the 2009-2010 Caps--the most offensively potent the franchise has iced since its inception--scored over a goal per game more than this year's team did and the wins piled up, along with the accolades. In the regular season.
Replacing him with the author of Franchise-Defining Moment #2, Dale Hunter, a player-hero from the old school of hockey, George McPhee tasked DH32 with coalescing a group of high-flying superstars, middling defense and spotty goaltending around a completely new philosophy (to them, anyway) of playing hockey. For the first time in the Ovechkin Era, this team was going to play defense.
It hasn't been easy. The team seesawed between wins and losses for much of the winter and early spring. Many newer fans of the team, as well as a lot of old timers, have been and continue to be outraged, at times rightfully so. It's been ‘this system sucks; that player won't ever change his game; these guys blow.' According to Mike Knuble, it took all of the new boss's 60 games, half of them losses, in the regular season to impose his will--his way--on a team that, even when healthy, was much less than the sum of its parts. But this team and coach have come together at the right time, or just in time, to skate and compete at the same pitch as its deeper, and arguably better, opponent.
At 7:30 pm, the Caps hit the ice at TD Garden as the decided underdogs, a role the team has seemingly embraced, having pushed the Bruins to a Game 7 that virtually no one outside (and precious few inside) the Beltway dared dream possible. It's a fact that, despite the Bruins' home ice advantage and coming off an emotionally draining overtime victory in Game 6 in DC, the pressure tonight is squarely on Boston, the defending champs and heavily favored to make "relatively easy" work of the NHL's annual "choking dogs," a team starting its third string netminder, with an inexperienced bench boss in new, but vaguely familiar, territory.
But more is at stake for Washington tonight than for Boston--the Bruins have their Cup, and a deep, talented, experienced team to boot. Tonight, the stakes are highest for the front office leadership, the coach and several of its players, including a few marquee names, whose jerseys are worn with pride around town despite the scorn of unfulfilled promise. Lose tonight, and the questions will swirl from the top of the organization down to the bottom. Changes will come, and next year's team won't look much like this year's. Who knows who will be behind the bench or upstairs at the Phone Booth?
But win tonight, and the sky is the limit for this team, this year. Gone are the hated Pens, the postseason bane of the Caps' existence, as well as a few powerhouses out West. Win tonight, and the Caps can take out the rest of the remaining teams by sticking to its new approach to playing a simple game of hockey. Win tonight, and this franchise can turn the corner and become the team so many have wanted to believe it could be.