Thursday, September 1, 2011

what if you're not the underdog

We all know how the story arc works best. A team comes from behind--they do something impossible, they get further than people expected them to, they grind and push further--surprising performances, character, tenacity. Especially in a sport with as many variables as hockey, where it's often very difficult to predict what will happen in the long run, when people's season-opening Stanley Cup predictions are very frequently wrong--what if you're not the underdog?

What if you don't root for a team that scraps for every inch? What if you don't root for the dark horse, the team that has as many downs as ups and learns to cope with them all before they hit the playoffs? What if you root for a team that's got all the talent in the world, that's got speed and dazzle, who goes into every game with a great shot to win it? What if you root for a team that's put on a hell of a show, who's got President's Trophy banners in the rafters, who teams across the league fear and respect, but who have yet to prove that there's any substance under all that jazz?

I'm not questioning the character that's on our team--there are clearly very good guys, and strong guys, and players who are capable of being very good leaders, and after this offseason I believe we've definitely picked up some more grit and focus. I'm not saying we don't have character--I'm questioning how often it's been tested. Perhaps not as much this past season, but the season before that certainly--things have not been particularly difficult for the Washington Capitals in their current incarnation, not for this particular group of guys, who collectively are so fucking talented that it's shocking they don't fall right over with the weight of it.

That is not a bad thing--we're very lucky to have the players we have, and the reason that things do go well for them is that they're very special players--to some extent, the stars have aligned. I don't worry about them during the regular season, almost ever--and then the playoffs come around, and the terror, and the friends and family quietly removing sharp objects from around me--and yet, people still expect us to place well in the Eastern Conference, to have a one or two seed, to be a Cup contender.

What if you're not the underdog. What if you're the favorite?

It's a different feeling, a different kind of pressure--you're not fighting defeat and underestimation, you're fighting what's expected of you--it's like I heard a Habs fan say once, that sometimes they worry that their team doesn't play because they want to win, they play because they're terrified of losing. I sensed a little bit of that last year, especially during the losing streak--I don't want this team to be motivated by desperation, I want them to be motivated by commitment and drive.

From what I've heard from the players this year, that's definitely the language they're speaking, that's the plan--but then again, they know what's expected of them. The Hockey News has predicted us to win the Cup this year; Ted Leonsis is saying it again, the expectation is nothing less than the Cup. But then again that was the expectation last year, and the year before. As long as we have Ovechkin playing in his prime years, we will never be the underdog--and that's not a bad thing, fighting your way up from behind is a dirty, exhausting business but so is feeling that you're on top of the world and getting cut down by unexpected defeat.

It's a different story arc, to be sure. We're not going to be the Cinderella story--but if we do manage to take it all the way this year, it will be just as much a struggle to overcome as anything I've seen so far. The Capitals simply have different things to overcome, and if getting out of our own way is the biggest issue we have this year, then I'm pretty sure I have nothing to complain about.

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