They all mean something different, these two-month treks through ice rinks across this continent.

A year ago, it was vanquishing a half-century of hockey failure for the city of St. Louis. The year before, similar notes pertained not only to the Washington Capitals as a franchise, but to their captain, Alex Ovechkin, as a seminal yet scarred star. The two springs before solidified the greatness of Sidney Crosby as a player and a leader and the Pittsburgh Penguins as a standard-bearing franchise.

Push back further, and the Stanley Cup playoffs reveal the character and the commitment of Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks or Steve Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings or Martin Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils — on and on, dating back more than a century, from the Vancouver Millionaires in 1915.

With the coronavirus pandemic crippling the nation, the spots on the calendar for so many sporting events have come and gone. We’re left watching only the classics, reminiscing about outcomes we already know rather than wondering what might happen next: the next play, the next inning, the next shot, the next night.

But think of the Final Four or the Masters or the Kentucky Derby, all casualties this spring. They take a weekend or a week or just two minutes. There is anticipation and excitement, but then — poof! — they’re gone, a memory until the next year.

By comparison, the Stanley Cup playoffs span a lifetime. A year ago, the St. Louis Blues opened the playoffs with a victory over the Winnipeg Jets on April 10. They closed out a Cup-winning run by beating the Bruins in Boston in Game 7 of the finals June 12. In those 64 days, they played 26 games — nearly a third of the regular season all over again, with added intensity and meaning.

The image that will last in St. Louis for eternity is captain Alex Pietrangelo, hoisting the cup high above his head before handing it to his teammates, a springtime tradition that is among the best celebrations in sports. Who wants to congratulate a franchise owner? In the aftermath of winning in hockey, the players — and the Cup — are rightly at center stage.

In any given year, there are hidden gems that reveal the fragility of the foundation for a Cup run. For the Blues, take Game 7 of the second round against Dallas, won on Pat Maroon’s goal in double overtime after three hours and 49 minutes. A bounce goes another way, the Stars advance, and St. Louis remains without a Cup.

That came May 7, the finals still a month away.

Every Cup run contains kernels like that one that change lives and legacies. It’s part of what makes hockey people boast that the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to earn. More than in any other sport, there are nights when one team clearly outplays the other — and loses. More than in any other sport, there tend to be unexpected obstacles to overcome. And more than in any other sport, work and commitment can become less important than fortune.

“Sometimes you have to deserve it,” Ovechkin said two springs ago, “and sometimes luck have to be on your side.”

What we’re missing right now is that delicious combination, night after night, of skill, strength, stamina, strategy — and blind luck. The Capitals’ surge to their only Stanley Cup — two years ago right now — is as good an example as any.

*****

Whatever happens during the Stanley Cup playoffs has to be informed by what happened to the teams and players involved leading up to that moment.

In the spring of 2018, the Capitals were snake-bitten, Ovechkin star-crossed. The franchise was defined by its failures rather than successes. The best and most important player in its history was defined by what he hadn’t accomplished rather than what he had.

The characters and the plot were well-established over a decade, and the story was sturdy. The pillars: back-to-back losses in the second round to archrival Pittsburgh, which each time went on to win the Cup. The three Presidents’ Trophies, awarded for the best regular season record in the NHL, all followed by exits in either the first or second round of the playoffs. And the retooling of the previous summer in which salary-cap constraints left the team with a depleted roster charged with pursuing the same goal.

Then the playoffs began, and in the first two games, the Capitals blew two-goal leads and lost to Columbus in overtime, at home. This felt like a new chapter in the serial, nothing more.

It is, though, a living, breathing demonstration of the difficulties that regularly surface during the Stanley Cup playoffs that don’t tend to hinder champions in other sports. The NBA and the NHL, for instance, have the same playoff format: 16 teams playing four rounds, all best-of-seven series. The champion must win 16 games.

Since 2003, when the NBA first instituted best-of-seven for the first round of the playoffs and thus matched the NHL, the Stanley Cup winner has a more arduous path than does the NBA champion. Nine hockey champs in that time have played at least 24 postseason games — or an average of six games per series. Thirteen have needed at least one seven-game series — indeed, eight have needed multiple Game 7 victories — and just four have swept even one round.

The contrast to basketball is stark. Just three NBA champs since 2003 have played as many as 24 playoff games en route to the title. NBA champs have 11 series sweeps in that time and have been forced to play just 13 Game 7s. Shoot, in 2017, Golden State went 16-1 in blitzing through the playoffs. That just doesn’t happen in hockey.

It can make the Stanley Cup playoffs maddening, and if your brain relies on logic to remain at peace, you’re better off putting your entertainment energy elsewhere. But I’d argue that it also makes the barriers that are broken through somewhat sweeter. Since going to best-of-seven in the opening round, just three times has an 8 seed beaten a 1 seed in the NBA. In the NHL, the team with the eighth-best record has beaten the conference’s best team nine times, including in both such series just last year. In 2012, the eighth-seeded Los Angeles Kings not only beat Vancouver in the first round but won the Stanley Cup.

You might find the anything-could-happen element either exhilarating or annoying. Either way, it’s undeniable. It made the danger the Capitals faced two Aprils ago very real as they headed to Columbus for Game 3. It made the anxiety of one overtime, then a second extra period, shoot right from the stomach up into the throat. And it made Lars Eller’s goal 89 minutes into the contest a season-saver for Washington.

This is what’s fitting about that tiny moment, too: It wasn’t a beauty. It was a rebound that caromed off the leg of a Columbus defender and then off Eller’s foot — into the net.

“It’s the playoffs,” Eller said. “Weird things happen.”

It’s the playoffs. Weird things happen. Print that up on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Not just in 2018 for the Capitals, but any year for any eventual Stanley Cup champ.

*****

Given the odd bounce or the random miscue, any playoff series is an opportunity for any team. But the challenge ahead for the 2018 Capitals — Pittsburgh, for the third straight year — seemed only to offer the chance for more pain. The hangover the Penguins had delivered to the Caps in the 2017 playoffs — a 2-0 victory in Game 7 of the second round in Washington — had been visceral. It led the team’s core pondering existential questions through the summer, and it affected a sluggish training camp and an uneven season.

Yet with the Penguins up again for the fourth time in his postseason career, Ovechkin was buoyant, and oddly so.

“I can’t wait,” Ovechkin said. “It’s a huge opportunity for us to take a step forward. Obviously, it’s the Stanley Cup champion back-to-back. They know how to play. They know how to handle the pressure.”

Implied: We still don’t. We have to learn. We have to try. Again.

What we can’t forget, though, is what else happened along the way for the 2018 Capitals. Luck, so often spitting in their general direction, started to embrace them. This began with scraps of evidence, then built into a trend.

Take Game 2 at Capital One Arena, with Washington trailing the series by a game. In the third period, the Capitals held a two-goal lead. But here came Crosby — the captain, nemesis to the nation’s capital — with the puck on his stick and then toward the goal. Patrick Hornqvist whacked at the rebound, and it trickled past goaltender Braden Holtby.

“You can clearly see that the puck is on its edge behind the post,” Crosby said later. “It’s not possible for it to touch the line.”

And yet, it went for a video review. Off-ice officials in Toronto waved it off. The Caps’ lead wasn’t cut in half. Momentum didn’t swing. And after what became a 4-1 victory came some acknowledgment of what happened.

“We got lucky there,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “We got a break.”

What a thing for a Washington Capital to say in April.

That Pittsburgh series also encapsulated what a Cup winner must do: adjust on the fly to circumstances that are flat unpredictable. Before Game 4, Capitals forward Tom Wilson was suspended for three games for a hit that broke the jaw of Penguins rookie Zach Aston-Reese. Let’s not readjudicate either the hit or the punishment here. Just state the fact: Wilson, who played with Ovechkin and skilled center Evgeny Kuznetsov, wasn’t available for Games 4, 5 and 6.

There was more. Andre Burakovsky, a talented but inconsistent forward, missed the Pittsburgh series because of an injury. In the waning moments of Game 5, Backstrom suffered an injury to his hand that would hold him out of the next game.

And yet, listen to what Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said after the Capitals won 6-3 in Game 5 to set up two chances to clinch: “It might have been our best game of the series, and we didn’t come out with the result we were looking for.”

It’s a lament familiar to Capitals fans, who have heard it uttered so often by primary Capitals characters. And if someone else was looking to the heavens saying, “Why us?”, well, maybe things were changing.

The Caps played Game 6 in Pittsburgh with five rookies in the lineup because of the injuries and Wilson’s suspension. One of them, Nathan Walker, had never had an NHL assist before he set up Alex Chiasson’s goal in the second period. It remains the only playoff game of Walker’s career.

In overtime, Pittsburgh forward Tom Khunhackl ripped a shot past Holtby. It pinged off the post. Try weighing all that now: What might have been vs. what was. There are similar examples sprinkled through various playoff rounds every single spring.

The signature moment from the clinching game, and in some ways from the entire run, is Ovechkin pushing a puck forward to Kuznetsov in overtime, toward the Pittsburgh net, toward the goal that clinched the series and turned an entire franchise’s history on its ear. But the stuff that characterizes the Stanley Cup playoffs — regardless of the year or the eventual champ — is more subtle.

It’s the video review that goes one way instead of the other. It’s the bounce that helps instead of hurts. It’s the unexpected performance from a bit player. And it’s the circumstances that appear dire but become, somehow, opportunities.

*****

The rest of that spring continued in that vein. In the first game of the Eastern Conference finals in Tampa, Nikita Kucherov scored a brilliant goal for the Lightning — except he didn’t. With 7.1 seconds remaining in the first period, officials waved it off because Tampa Bay had too many men on the ice. Two seconds later at the other end of the ice, T.J. Oshie won a faceoff, and Ovechkin blasted one home. It could have been a 1-1 tie. Instead, the Caps led, 2-0.

By then, the entire spring had begun to feel different from those that preceded it. Not only was there hockey in Washington deep into May, but there was a town that seemed to believe rather than dread. With good reason: For all the fortune that seemed to flip in the Capitals’ favor as the playoffs wore on, there was also the fact that they were, by that point, an excellent and confident team playing a solid, reliable, dangerous brand of hockey.

“It just clicked,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said.

Thus is revealed another element of the Stanley Cup playoffs: the beauty that results when a talented and determined group just figures it out. Pick a team that hoisted the Cup — regardless of their style or the strengths or their era — and that has to have happened at some point. They no longer need the bounces. They’re just better.

For the Capitals, that time truly arrived after they dropped three straight to fall behind the Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals. Their response: a 3-0 victory at home in Game 6, and a 4-0 victory in Tampa to reach the Cup finals. Those weren’t just playoff wins. They were clinics.

The 2018 Stanley Cup final wasn’t a classic matchup — the Capitals vs. the expansion Vegas Golden Knights — nor was it a classic series. The signature moment, without question, was Holtby’s sprawling save of Vegas’s Alex Tuch in the waning minutes of Game 2, the save the preserved a one-goal lead, the save that clinched the first finals victory for Washington — ever. The Caps didn’t lose again.

It ended, of course, with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman handing the Cup to Ovechkin. That’s what we’re missing this spring, paralyzed by the coronavirus: the best trophy in sports hoisted above the head of a player, not an owner, and what it represents — the accomplishment of winning that series, sure, but all the granular developments that preceded it as well.

The names of the men who win the Stanley Cup are annually etched on its side. Think back at Cup runs gone by, those that matter to you and your team. They represent the “who” of the accomplishment. But more than any other sport, the “hows” of winning a Stanley Cup mix diligence and determination with dumb luck. Each year, it makes for a tale that’s deeper and richer than in so many other sports.


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