One of the greatest sporting memories I have had over the past couple of years was my alma mater, Penn State, pulling off the upset on Ohio State football in a 2016 showdown at home. It not only put my University back on the College Football map, but it eventually placed the group of players from pariyahs taking part in a program still in the middle of sanctions of the Jerry Sandusky scandal to eventually being part of an experience that transcended sporting pop culture. SaQuon Barkley became the most exciting player that I have ever witnessed wearing a Penn State uniform. Trace McSorley has the opportunity to win the Heisman Trophy next year if he can mimic everything Baker Mayfield did this season. Marcus Allen’s and Jason Cabinda’s leadership, positive enthusiasm, infectious smiles the likes we haven’t seen since Magic Johnson, and a handful of postgame dance parties, brought a fresh off-the-field attitude that hasn’t been set upon the school in decades. Lastly, DaeSean Hamilton and Mike Gesicki went from being ball dropping failures to some of the most dependable players and greatest feel-good redemption stories on the team.
So why am I talking about Penn State football on a hockey blog post? Because of one half-time speech by formerly beleaguered to current superstar head coach James Franklin. After Penn State cut the deficit to 12-7, he bellowed at the top of his lungs a quote that still runs chills down my spine to this day. “Opportunity is knocking…and it’s knocking louder. IT’S KNOCKING LOUDER!!! We gotta take advantage of this opportunity!” cried out a coach that was rumored to be fired if he couldn’t get his team and this program over the consistent 7-win season humps they were constantly enduring during the sanctions that season. Not only did the program respond with one of its most memorable plays in a generation, but they eventually made it to two New Years Six bowls, had Barkley become the second overall pick in last night’s NFL Draft, and owned the fifth best recruiting class that will continue to build on the trail that that team created.
That piercing-through-your-spirit plee is what I constantly think about at times with my favorite pro teams when they just need to find that extra inch to pull off something Washington DC hasn’t done in 20 years: make a Conference Finals appearance. Laugh all you want from the Portrait Gallery steps Penguins fans. Just understand what it’s like to not have baseball in 40 years, to have the football team owned by a one of the great village-idiot and message-controlling dictators in training we have ever witnessed in our lifetime not named Donald Trump, and to have a basketball team who’s general managers somehow find extra lives that are greater than any cat around.
The point is, Washington hasn’t had many opportunities. When they have been presented, they have been there only in the previous decade alone. It should be understandable how they have always been treated as a foreign object. But those opportunities are dwindling fast for the teams most prominent over the years, including the Washington Capitals. I will forever stand by the point that, unless the greatest draft classes and offseason transactions in franchise history happen in the near future, that last year was the last great chance Alex Ovechkin and this group of players ever had to winning a Stanley Cup. And thanks to a summer that was predictably awful because of predictably stupid preconseived notions, this roster came in as one of the worst from a long-term point of view since the days of Adam Oates.
If you have been following me all season, you will have noticed that by a comfortable distance, Washington was the worst playoff team from an underlying numbers standpoint. But through their unsustainably hot shooting and always strong power play, this team found a way to get to 105 points. They were still underdogs coming into the Columbus series with expectations that their depth will always be stronger than whatever Washington possessed. But with the consistently bad play of Sergei Bobrovsky and the catastrophic injury to Alexander Wennberg, Washington got an opportunity, and they took advantage of it by rattling off four straight games with three of them being in Columbus.
The Capitals then faced a Penguins side that may have come away with a series win over arch-rivals Philadelphia, but they came away with it with a few battle scars. This time, Evgeni Malkin’s leg injury and Carl Hagelin’s “not a concussion” prevented them from playing in Game 1 of this series. An opportunity was given to them. Washington got off to a 1-0 lead in 17 seconds thanks to poor support coverage by Jake Guentzel but fantastic passing by Tom Wilson who continues to show why he is the next Alex Burrows. Oh and bad Matt Murray was on display at the start. Again, Washington had an opportunity given to them.
Then, good Matt Murray was creeping in with ten-bell saves all over the place. Then again, Braden Holtby was up to the task and was making saves of his own, including a Dominic Simon shot that rang the post. Even through all that the Capitals were hounding the Pens defense in shot attempts all night and were getting better by the game. To start the third, another odd man rush was given to Alex Ovechkin. He took advantage was a top shelf bullet past Murray. Again, an opportunity was given to Washington.
Suddenly, however, a Justin Schultz shot was redirected about as textbook as you like by public enemy number one Patric Hornqvist to make it 2-1. But the opportunity was still there for Washington. That is, until Ovechkin had a opportunity to swipe away a pass towards Sidney Crosby, only for him to partially tap it lightly enough to still have the pass hit Crosby’s stick for a one-timer goal. Then, Jake Guentzel scored on another classic redirect, at the near post of all places, after Braden Holtby failed to clear the puck out of the zone. But the Penguins did all that with time still left and Washington’s opportunity was still present.
In the abreviated power play, Nicklas Backstrom had a chance for a tap in goal off of a hard Kuznetsov pass only for him to miss it. Alex Ovechkin’s trade mark shot off of the offensive zone face off draw hit Murray square on the mask. Lastly, Devante Smith-Pelly, for the second time of the night no less, had a gaping net only for Murray to come in just in time to save it off of his blocker pad. An opportunity was given, but the Caps didn’t turn out to take it. The Capitals have constantly proved that they are a better team now that Michal Kempny has made the defense corps much more balanced. But that doesn’t mean that the flaws of this team still can’t be exposed greatly. That is why this loss hurts. When you’re the underdog, opportunities don’t come knocking this easy.
Even when they did throughout the Trotz era between these two teams, Washington has been terrible at taking advantage of them. In 2016, Kris Letang was suspended for Game 4 and instead, Washington lost in overtime off of a giveaway by Mike Weber: one of the worst decisions in the history of Trotz’s tenure. In 2017, Washington lost Game 4 despite not having Pittsburgh play Letang or Crosby after the infamous, but still accidental hit that was delivered to the Penguins captain by Matt Niskanen. Now, the Capitals have lost when Malkin and Hagelin were hurt. Just how many opportunities will this Ovechkin era team have when they are not taken? That’s why I always had Pittsburgh winning this series.
But in all fairness, the opportunities will come. Matt Murray almost gave us bad Matt Murray until he became good Matt Murray. More power plays will come. The officials did miss a high stick that Evgeny Kuznetsov received in the second period and a too many men incident at the end of the third period. But in fairness, I’ve seen much worse performances by the men in stripes. But again, the opportunities will be coming. They will be knocking louder. Will this city, let alone this team, ever take advantage of it?