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The Washington Capitals are down one game in the Stanley Cup finals, and it could be my fault.
A little more than a year ago I decided to turn my back on the NHL playoffs. Watching the Capitals lose was no longer fun, and the thin possibility of a minor reward—happiness in what is, after all, someone else’s victory—was no longer proportionate to the stress and disappointment along the way.
So not only did I stop watching, I publicly rage-quit the entire NHL playoffs. (This is the sort of behavior that’s accepted from sports media folks but rightly viewed as slightly sociopathic when it comes from fans or casual viewers.)
That kind of decision, of course, presupposes that the Caps would continue to lose. Last year, they obliged. This year, though, things had been different. They showed resilience beyond anything any D.C. team has shown in decades. They got punched and got back up and punched right back and it earned them the right, for the first time in twenty years, to play in the Stanley Cup Finals.
I watched maybe six periods of the resilient, thrilling hockey that got them here. And though I do not regret it, I worry that it was too much.
Every time I turned on the game, the Caps would wither and die. The first period I watched in its entirety was the second period of Game 2 of Round One. Columbus scored three goals and it was arguably the worst overall period the Caps played this postseason. Not watching for awhile was easy after that.
But the next game I watched was the series-clinching Game 6 against the Penguins. JP Finlay of NBC Sports had tweeted that he was watching from Penn Social, so I dropped in to say hey. Then, in an unprecedented turn of events, the Caps scored to take the lead not long after I got the to the bar. Finally: clear evidence that I was not a jinx, at least not in those specific circumstances. So I stuck around through the Penguins tying it up and into overtime, spouting doom and imminent apocalypse right up until the moment when Evegeny Kuznetsov split the defense and sent the Caps to the Eastern Conference Finals.
Watching that game felt like a crucial moment in my experiment of not watching, though. The other people in that bar were Caps fans through and through. This was, without question, their moment—earned through years of suffering through every stupid bad bounce and improbably good opposing goalie performance. I definitely felt that gap. I had not earned this. I hadn’t put in the requisite hours of misery to enjoy the celebration.
So I didn’t. Instead I basked in the joy of the people who did. It was like being a plus-one to a wedding where you know no one at all and yet somehow wind up being suffused with love and support for the happy couple, the wedding party, the families, and even the other guests—only more so.
Flush with success and puck luck, I watched virtually none of the Eastern Conference Finals. I finally tuned in with 5:00 left in Game 7, watching the Caps turn a 3-0 lead into a 4-0 lead.
It’s not like I’ve missed the playoffs thus far. I followed all of the games on Twitter, read recaps and watched highlights, and even occasionally dipped into talk radio for as long as I could tolerate it. I just did very little of the high-stress real-time watching of the games. I was much happier for it, and, as far as I could tell, the Caps were too.
While keeping my heart rate down and my health up, I was also able to watch a couple of movies, work late at the office, spend more time with my kids, play some video games for the first time in years, attend my daughter’s dance recital, and give a lengthy, tedious lecture about the tradition of eating dairy food on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.
Then the Stanley Cup finals arrived. My wife wanted to watch. My kids wanted to watch. The city is as on-fire for the Caps as I’ve ever seen. If there was ever a time to start watching again, I figured, this was it. So the whole family tuned in for Game 1 in Vegas and, well, look what happened.
I should’ve known better. In rereading my column about the NHL playoffs from last year, the closing line jumped out at me: “I only hope that one day the Caps will give me the opportunity to really enjoy not watching a Stanley Cup Finals appearance.”
The universe and puck luck and a determined Caps team gave me exactly what I hoped for. It was obviously an insult to the hockey gods to dismiss that and try to watch the game. For the rest of this week, I might see what movies are playing instead.