Sunday night the Washington Capitals snapped an eight-game losing streak. Many of you may not have been aware of this, but for me, it has been three solid weeks of agony. Before last night, the last time the Caps had won a game was December 1st in St. Louis. The last time they won a home game was three Sundays ago, November 28th. For a team that posted not only the best regular season record in hockey last season, but was dominant on the Slurpee-like Verizon Center ice, it’s been a wretched December.
For fans in the area, losing streaks are something of an aberration. In the past thirteen years, a losing streak for the Orioles has not been what one would call “newsworthy.” Losing is a way of life. My only expectations of the Baltimore Sun sports section are to tell me when there is not an ongoing losing streak, or if the O’s invent a new kind of losing streak (such as the inability to win on Sundays). Baseball also has 162 games on the slate. Every loss means a little bit less. Losing streaks seem more harmless, set to “Yackety Sax,” with images of balls bouncing through infielders’ legs and base runners eating dirt rounding third. Losers in baseball are downright lovable (see every baseball movie ever made).
For most of the Ravens’ tenure in Baltimore, at least post-Marchibroda Era, two losses has constituted a “losing streak.” By fate or by design, football has largely been kind to us. As for the Capitals’ roommates, the Washington Wizards, even in years where expectations have been somewhat high, losing never should come as a surprise when your uniforms look borderline “bedazzled.”
The Capitals, for their part, were not a great franchise prior to the 2007-08 season. Yes, they had fielded great teams, a brief span of promise during the Langway 80s, serving as foil to the early-90s Lemieux Penguins, and the unfortunate 1998 Stanley Cup sweep at the hands of the Red Wings.
If you missed the first Red, White and Blue Era and the Teal and Bronze Era, you should know that Everything Is Different Now, since the team fired Glen Hanlon over the Thanksgiving break in 2007. You should know that winning is not only a likely outcome, but an expectation. The team’s performance over the past 36 calendar months has given rise to a newfound social contract between team and fan. The fans will continue to pack the arena (a sellout streak dating to spring 2008 still remains intact), and the team will continue to win, and win with an exciting brand of offensive, flashy hockey.
The past three weeks have been a big ol’ bowl of hubris for both the team and its fans. Fittingly, the HBO crew filming “24/7 – Road to the Winter Classic” dropped into the Caps’ locker room with an all-access pass just as the team was reaching its nadir.
Alas, we have come out of it alive. To prepare you for any losing streak you may have to endure, I’ve retrospectively chronicled my feelings over the last eight games and consulted my Hello Kitty journal to bring you The Stages of a Losing Streak.
Stage 1 – The Prelude
The first stage of a losing streak actually happens before it starts. It’s like Inception (BRRAMM BRRAMMM), a basic concept is planted in the back of your mind through something simple, something smaller. The Capitals’ Prelude came November 19-22nd, when they dropped three games in a row, being outscored 15-4 in that stretch. When the Prelude happens, you find ways to put it out of your mind. You feel it in the back of your thoughts but you chase it away. “Can’t win ‘em all.” Or, in hockey, the convenient Overtime Loss consolation can trick you into thinking a performance is better than it is as a result of the half-win valued point awarded for the effort. You don’t spend your days agonizing over the Prelude, but you can tell Something’s Not Right.
Stage 2 – The Bad Break
It starts with something innocent. The Capitals let in a soft goal to Dallas and go down 2-1 late in the third period. They yank the goalie and miraculously put one in the net. Referees dart in and immediately begin waving off the goal. Ovechkin has done something to draw their ire. The goal doesn’t count, and isn’t reviewed. Caps lose. The night before, the Capitals won in St. Louis. I remember saying to people “You know, you play two nights in a row on the road, something’s BOUND to not go your way.” Cue ominous music. All losing streaks seem to start with something out of your control, something that would fell any good team. As Gus Haynes told us on Season 5 of the Wire, “It always starts with something true!” Can I mention how much I miss The Wire?
Stage 3 – The Meltdown
The Meltdown resembles a scene that happens a lot in movies. Everything is going well for the good guy. Things are happy-go-lucky. “Hey, let’s go for a drive!” Someone starts horsing around or laughing too much. My wife can’t stand this scene. “LOOK AT THE ROAD!” she screams. Too late. Our hero spends the last act picking up the pieces of the wreck. This happened to the Caps in the third loss of the streak, at home versus Toronto. After getting out to a commanding 3-0 lead, the Caps implode in the final period, eventually losing 5-4 in a shootout. At Stage Three, there can still be a level of denial that goes on, but there’s more grumbling directed at the coach and the infrastructure of the team. The first “boos” begin to rain down on the home team. They’re not the spiteful, “why do you do this to us?!” boos. They’re “you’re better than this” boos. The Meltdown is no fun.
Stage 4 – The Nadir
Game four of the streak was a pathetic effort vs. The Florida Panthers, a team that Washington went 6-0 against last season who even diehard hockey fans sometimes forget is a part of the NHL. Game five was a tough 3-2 loss to Colorado. Thanks to “24/7” we know that in the locker room, coach Bruce Boudreau told the team, “you gave a great effort and didn’t get rewarded for it, if you play like that tomorrow I guarantee you’ll get a win.” Well, they didn’t. Captured, again, in excruciating detail by HBO, the team was absolutely outclassed at Madison Square Garden by New York. Ovechkin instigated a fight to try and rouse his boys after the Caps got down early 3-0, but fittingly another Ranger goal was scored almost immediately after the scuffle. The final tally was 7-0. Whatever happens the rest of the season, this will be the low moment. Down the road, I’m sure I’ll revisit this episode of “24/7” and see if I can watch it again, sort of like when someone says, “smell this, it’s terrible!”
Stage 5 – The “Good” Loss
Smug people and statisticians will tell you there is no such thing as a good loss or a moral victory. Well, Washington actually had two of these in a row. They threw everything they had at Anaheim and Boston and still came up a goal short each time. At this point in a losing streak, a fanbase will settle for a win by forfeit. The folks who weren’t in the “Fire The Coach” camp now begin to wade over, rationalizing, “the team just needs a change to turn things around.” Still the good loss brings some hope. You may not see the light at the end of the tunnel, but you are at least agnostic about the existence of a light and a tunnel (as opposed to, say, a bear trap).
Stage 6 – The Ultimatum
When a good team reaches a certain point in a losing streak, the stats start to come out. Nine is the longest losing streak in franchise history (the 1974-75 team, the first Capitals team, is still statistically, and, by all accounts, subjectively, the worst team to ever skate in an NHL barn). The Capitals stood at eight. After the nadir, everyone starts to say “okay, there’s NO WAY they don’t win the next game.” It seems improbable that they wouldn’t. Sure, I suppose that the streak could go on to ten, twelve, fourteen games if things got really ugly. After all, the injuries and sickness have piled up for Washington during this stretch, so when you think of it objectively, it’s conceivable that a playoff team could lose double-digit games in a row. It’s a long season, after all. For the Capitals, it may have been the realization that the 8th loss took them out of the lead of the Southeast Division, and down to 7th in the Eastern Conference, bordering on playoff eligibility in the “if the season ended today” scenario. Whatever it is, a collective boiling point is reached. Either win, or possibly never recover.
It seems silly to write in such dire terms about sports. After all, nothing is really at stake. Okay, things are at stake, but watch I Heart Huckabees once or twice and you can find a way to question the meaninglessness of most things. At worst, highly paid people will lose their jobs. Some people might be a little grumpy for a few weeks. Life goes on. This too, shall pass. The streak is over. A return to normalcy.
I love sports.