It’s been almost month since the Caps were so perfectly poised to bury one of those exhaustively referenced playoff demons. That particular hell-spawn was the memory of 2-0 and 3-1 series leads lost (the 2-0 specifically being the winning of two opening road games), typically while being the underdog. The beating of the underdog Rangers, who had taken those two very series lead against the higher-seeded, mostly favored Caps, went a long way to washing the vile tastes of 1995, 1996, and 2003 from our mouths (amongst others).
In a season seemingly dead-set on giving the franchise a fresh start in its post-season history, it was perhaps only appropriate that the one-time consensus Eastern Conference Champion New Jersey Devils would so gloriously choke away a lead with just over a minute left in Game 7 to give the Caps a second round date with the Pittsburgh Penguins. The “coincidence” of this event happening just moments after sageful Sergei Fedorov had buried the Rangers in the Caps own Game 7 should not be ignored.
So yes, the Capitals can expunge another painful part of their past tonight by improving the franchise’s playoff record against the Pens to 2-6. Be ready to hear that record screamed incessantly by insecure Iron City drunkards should their vaunted squad be defeated. Nothing like ancient history to salve the wounds of the present.
A win tonight makes us forget silly things like OT penalty shot pucks skipping playfully around Joe Juneau’s stick and harmlessly into the waiting pads of Ken Wregget, buzz-killing 7-0 Game 1 defeats on home ice, wackily deflected OT goals, Petr Nedved, and, yes, seemingly commanding series leads lost.
There is even more at stake, however. The Caps can do the rest of the league and hockey fans outside of the Pittsburgh/West Virginia area a huge favor tonight in vanquishing those darling Penguins, that team never lacking for a pep talk from whatever hockey pundit feels a warmth in his bosom for Sidney Crosby on any given day.
It’s a chance for the Caps to rescue us all, at least for five months, from a world where any mildly irritating, NHL-decreed-destiny-defying setback for the Pens is characterized as “adversity” (also known as “losing a game” or “incurring a penalty” for any other team), which of course is eventually “overcome”, where any Pens’ minor success is lauded as “resiliency”, where another manifestation of Sid’s petulant, entitled-brat schtick in complaining about hat-trick hats is characterized as the Pens captain being ”ever the competitor”, where instances of trash-throwing on DC ice are met with disdain and instances of the same in Pittsburgh are ignored, where the true resiliency of a Caps' rookie goaltender is questioned even as his counterpart in black and gold allows one laughable goal after another, and where increasingly tired arguments (some admittedly presented here) of which fanbase/organization has more “class”, which team posesses more loyal, less-bandwagony fans, or which team boasts more whiners, fall almost unanimously in favor of the Penguins. It's the Caps on the short end of these arguments now, but a Pittsburgh victory and it will soon be the Bruins/Hurricanes or Ducks/Red Wings/Blackhawks/any team daring to stand in the way of Gary Bettman reverently handing Sid a trophy.
This is the monster the Caps can slay tonight, along with their oft-mentioned demons, and oft-mentioned (usually snarkily) ancient history with the Penguins, a history with which exactly zero current Capitals were involved in any way (regular resident of the healthy scratch list Michael Nylander doesn’t count). It's a chance for a fresh start for us all.
Beat the Penguins, save the (hockey) world.