Here we go again.
That’s the exasperation-laden mantra of any Caps fan these days as yet another Game 7 rears its ugly head here in Washington. Because when it comes to the Caps and Game 7, you don’t even have to be a lifetime fan to know the potential heartbreak and drama lurking in every one; we've seen it, first hand, and it’s seemingly always fresh. Sure, as hockey fans we love them… but right now none of us are hockey fans. All of us are Caps fans. And with that moniker comes a dark cloud of pessimism, a hulking monkey on our collective backs and enough baggage to fill the cargo hold of a 747 jet.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the history of it all, whether your most vivid memory in these decisive games is one from the Alex Ovechkin era or the days of Rod Langway, whether your nightmares are haunted by Pat Lafontaine or Joffrey Lupul or Jaroslav effing Halak. There are so many names that cause even the most stalwart Caps fan to flinch, so many moments on which we look back and think "what if…". It’s what makes being a Caps fan such a badge of honor sometimes – we've been through the wars. We've taken our knocks. We've seen our team blow 3-1 series leads and lived to tell the tale.
But this isn't the Caps team of 1987 or 1995 or 2010 or even 2012. The past is the past; it can’t hurt us anymore than we let it. This is a new year, a different team.
That perhaps is the most promising thing about this – it’s not the same team, and the baggage being hauled around DC by the fans is at worst a small carry-on for the players themselves. They’re not as burdened by the history the way all of us are, the way the players of previous eras perhaps were (although today’s group is certainly subjected to stories about it every time this happens). Those players who have lived through the more recent heartbreaks don’t dwell on it, they learn from it. This team has experience and maturity, skill and grit – they’ve showed that and more, albeit in mere flashes at times, throughout this series. They have all the tools needed to turn tonight into a good memory instead of another chapter in the "Here We Go Again" bible.
And most importantly, they have Adam Oates behind the bench. If we have learned anything this season, it’s that this matters immensely. If anyone is going to keep this team level and even, keep them from slumping if they give up the first goal, keep the adrenalin down and the energy up, it’s Oates. In some ways it feels as if the even-keeled, stone-faced, calm, cool and collected coach was destined to be here at this moment. How far he’ll take them this year remains to be seen, of course, and even destiny might have to wait... but if the Caps fall short it won’t be because the man steering the ship lost his way.
Throw everything out that’s happened in the past - not just the horrors of years gone by but even all that has come before in this series. Throw out the goaltending stats, because both goalies have given up eleven goals, won three, lost three and been on the good side of a 1-0 nail biter. Throw out the scoring stats, because in the brighter spotlight of a Game 7 anything can happen and heroes both likely and unlikely can emerge… just ask Joel Ward. Throw out the officiating, the bluster of John Tortorella, the overtime wins and one-goal losses. Throw it all out.
Because tonight we start fresh.
It’s a best of one series, winner takes all, loser goes home. And despite the history and the heartbreak, this team can do this. These Caps are more than capable of winning this series in which home ice has been king, in which Braden Holtby has faced down Henrik Lundqvist and held serve, in which a handful of players seem ohsoclose to breaking through and another handful has yet to play their best game. Three times the Caps have dominated and won; three times they’ve played less than their best and still only fallen short by one goal. The margin of error is thin, the bounces fickle, but if they play the way they have in each of their wins they are capable of making all of that irrelevant.
They can do this. Just win. Win and move on. Win and quiet those who dwell on irrelevant history. Win and take another step towards healing a city in need of far more than just a Band-Aid and a hug.