There have been times in the past where a Capitals win over a hated rival (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, etc.) would be enough to set off week-long celebrations. It was like the hockey version of a sugar high - no matter where the respective teams were in the standings or in the season, a win like that always seemed to be cause for unbridled giddiness.
The first meeting with and subsequent win over Pittsburgh this season, however, yielded much different results. It was a great victory and one that produced more than a few smiles among Caps fans – it was, after all, the Penguins. But enthusiasm was notably restrained nonetheless. There seemed to be an unspoken understanding that this game was just what we told ourselves it was going in: one game out of 82, one game that proves nothing and decides nothing, a good win but nothing more.
It’s all part of what seems to be a rather businesslike approach to the season overall - a win does not signal the planning of the parade any more than a loss means a certain first round exit. You can see it in every facet of Caps fandom, a palpable agreement that regular season glory is not the ultimate goal and should not be celebrated as such. As fellow Rink writer Pepper noted, there is a feeling of "zen contentment" that permeates CapsNation.
Even among the players there’s this sense that the regular season is just a stepping stone. Postgame interviews after a loss are downright scary; after a win they’re all business. Once exuberant goal celebrations are more subdued, more of an "okay, that’s one, time to get another" nature…even from the captain himself (although subdued is a relative measurement when it comes to #8).
It’s certainly not a bad thing. This franchise has grown in leaps and bounds since the lockout, and as its grown so our approach to the season has changed. We’ve gone from being happy just to win a game here and there to demanding better, more frequent wins; from appreciating the pure magic of a playoff spot to demanding more than a first or second round exit.
With a 19 point lead in the division, the most in franchise history, it would be easy for this team to coast into the playoffs on the strength of an automatic 3rd seed – but it seems like neither fans nor players are content to coast anymore. We all simply demand more, and that requires a kind of focus and determination that will not accept the minor victories in place of the major one. It's been a long time since expectations - and abilities - have been so high for this organization.
Before the Pittsburgh game last week, we were reminded – constantly and painfully – of last year’s disappointing Game 7, of the ultimate result of a postseason gone wrong. And the return of the Caps to Mellon Arena was touted by many around the organization as a benchmark game for Washington.
It definitely was just that, a benchmark game. Not because the Penguins are a better, tougher team or because the Caps can’t skate with them – quite the opposite. It’s true because, for better or for worse, the Pens are the Stanley Cup Champs. It’s true because meeting them at this point in the season can only strengthen that focus and resolve, and serve as a reminder of what this team wants to accomplish. How this team approached such a potentially emotional game, how they reacted to the outcome and how they followed it up would go a long way toward telling us exactly what we have here.
That postgame rhetoric was just as even-tempered and dismissive as it was going in is telling, as is the fact that they came out and put together a hard-working, blue collar win just two days later. And so is the fact that the now six-game winning streak is just another moment in the season for Caps fans - albeit a tenuously exciting one. We're happy with where we are but not satisfied. Not by a long shot.
Because as Eric Fehr so honestly and succinctly put it before the Penguins game, "[t]hey stole what we wanted". It's how we all feel. Players, fans, coaches, everyone - they stole what we wanted.
And until we get it? It's all business, baby.