WASHINGTON — There have been so many days after around here, the mornings following those dreary nights when hockey season ends. Inevitably, with metronomic regularity, it thuds to a disappointing stop, and the tired and tortured souls who dozens of times a year pull on Washington Capitals sweaters and Washington Capitals hats rise to consider the annual question: Can I do this again?
In the late stages of the Capitals’ complete collapse Monday night – what became a dreadful 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers in the seventh and deciding game of their playoff series – the stands at Verizon Center emptied. As fans poured into the streets, a man stood outside the Gallery Place Metro stop, selling Capitals hats, and realized the futility of his task at such an hour. So he offered them for free. There were no takers.
“I can’t even give these away,” he said.
Being a fan is an investment of time, of emotion, of finances, of energy, and by the time Tuesday morning broke – and the hosts on 106.7 The Fan were calling the Capitals’ decisive game an “absolute debacle” – the masses were evaluating all of those investments, because the history is stark. The Capitals began play in 1974-75, and have never won a Stanley Cup. Really, they have never come close, reaching the finals just once, back in 1998, when they were swept in four straight games. Of the nine National Hockey League franchises that have reached the finals no more than once, the Capitals have been around the longest.
So in a way, their fans have endured the most heartache, and each spring feels depressingly the same. The catastrophe against the Rangers – one that completed a four-games-to-three loss in a series the Capitals opened with two wins – fits neatly into letdowns new and old. The players change, the coaches change, the arena changed, the owner changed. The results don’t.
“It’s like you see all those memories come flooding back,” said Eric Fingerhut, a Potomac, Md., native and Washington resident who began going to games as a kid in the late 1970s. “It’s like, ‘Gosh, why do they have to put us through this again? Why can’t we be a normal team that doesn’t have this history?’ As a fan, I can’t avoid it, either. I think about it all the time. It just keeps happening.”
The outcomes are consistent, but the reactions to them vary. Twitter revealed a fan base Tuesday that was alternately angry (“I am done after 38 years I am not going to invest any more energy in this group,” wrote @CBJinDC) to resilient (“being a Caps fan is like living in tornado alley, sucks at times but in the end you rebuild and hope for a better tomorrow,” wrote @yanger1994) to numb (“I went to acceptance pretty quickly,” wrote @mattycraft).
“It’s an all-time low,” said Dave Sachs, a 29-year-old Alexandria, Va., native who moved to Denver last year, yet still watched every game this season. “It will be a new all-time low each time we don’t win in the playoffs. There’s no free pass for this team until we win a Cup.”
Monday night, when Capitals defenseman John Erskine all but picked up the puck and handed it to Rangers captain Ryan Callahan – who, just 13 seconds into the third and final period, promptly scored the goal that made it 4-0 – Verizon Center fell all but silent. At moments like this, when cheers become murmurs and all those red jerseys stream from the stands, it’s hard to remember that at another level, the Capitals have become a successful franchise, so far removed from the days when they annually missed the playoffs and played to a half-empty room.
Monday night’s game against the Rangers was the 181st consecutive time the Capitals have sold out Verizon Center, a streak that dates back to the 2008-09 season. On the latest morning after, the team reported that its season-ticket renewal rate for 2013-14 – yes, that’s right, this all starts over again in October – is 96 percent. And those fans who were able to shrug off the loss put some faith in the ability of first-year coach Adam Oates to reach star Alex Ovechkin, who led the league in goals scored before sputtering in the playoffs.
But searching for silver linings feels so cliche to Caps fans now.
“I personally feel like I have let the community down with this Game 7 loss,” team owner Ted Leonsis, who declined an interview request through a spokesman, wrote on his personal blog. “I also feel terrible in how we let down our great fan base, and I am very appreciative of all of your support, even when we were down 5-0. . . .
“When you are eliminated in the playoffs, the emotions are raw and the thinking isn’t that clear. So I believe it best that we let some time pass before we comment on the season and the series, and our eventual go-forward plan.”
Meanwhile, someone had already gone forward with altering Leonsis’s entry on Wikipedia, going so far as to compare him to Saddam Hussein.
So here it is, suddenly: summer. Training camp will open in September. Another regular season, the 39th in franchise history, will begin in October.
“As tired as I am of it, as terrible as it is,” said Sachs, “I’ll be back in October. The first game, I’ll be sitting down in a bar, watching somewhere.”
He thought of his friends, Washington natives scattered about the country, a group that texts each other during each game.
“They all say, ‘I’m not going to care anymore,’” he said. “I know as well as they do: That’s not true. We love this team, as bad as they’ve been, as many times as they’ve choked in the playoffs, as sad as that is. Ugh, but man, does it really hurt.”