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Now I Can Die in Peace, Washington Capitals Edition

The Caps have finally won the Stanley Cup. One long-suffering fan reflects on his team’s journey to the trophy.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Lars Eller scored the tie-breaking goal in the third period of Thursday night’s Game 5 of the Stanley Cup final, there were precisely seven minutes and 37 seconds to go in regulation — precisely seven minutes and 37 seconds separating my beloved Washington Capitals from lifting their first-ever Cup. Relatedly: Those may have been the longest seven minutes and 37 seconds of my life.

Everyone has a different way of coping with stressful situations, in sports fandom or otherwise. Alone in my Brooklyn apartment, I muted Doc Emrick’s overly excited voice on my laptop stream. (To switch the mojo, I had flipped from TV to computer after the second period ended with the Capitals trailing.) I put a Post-it note on my MacBook screen, like so:

Donnie Kwak

The clock was mocking me, so I had to mute it, too. The game was almost unbearable to watch. Almost. Because as those interminable seven minutes and 37 seconds ticked away, I detached myself from the moment and reflected on the way the Caps got here.

Fifty-one days earlier, Eller’s fluky overtime goal against Columbus had saved the Caps from going into a 3–0 hole in the first round. Thirty-one days earlier, Evgeny Kuznetsov had scored the OT winner that finally (finally!!!) vanquished the Penguins. Sixteen days ago, I had intentionally missed a flight home from L.A. so I could sit in an Alaska Airlines lounge to watch Andre Burakovsky score two goals in a Game 7 against the Lightning. Hockey lifers insist that the Stanley Cup is the hardest sports trophy to win; each seven-game series feels like a season in and of itself. And in each of those series en route to the Cup, the Capitals were forced to overturn deficits: hope replaced doubt replaced hope replaced doubt all over again. (The one constant emotion: my genuine hatred for every opponent.) It’s utterly exhausting.

So it was incomprehensibly satisfying to see my team hoist that Cup. As we reached the precipice, I was thrust back into the present. The game’s final seconds were a blur, a lifetime of disappointment washed away with the sound of a buzzer. The end to every previous season of my Capitals fandom has left me numb; last year I even eulogized the death of the Alexander Ovechkin era. On this night, I felt something entirely new: pure, unadulterated sports happiness. It’s an intoxicating, rewarding emotional state I can’t imagine will go away for a long while. Eagles fans, I feel you now.

A nod to our final opponents: It was shockingly easy for me to disdain the Golden Knights, with their silly pregame theatrics and crappy ice conditions. Even worse, the team’s total lack of history exacerbated my hate for Vegas and its fans. Naturally, NBC and the national media (yes, including The Ringer) couldn’t get enough of an expansion team’s “feel-good” playoff run. I felt like a person who’s suffered multiple horrific breakups watching someone else’s love-at-first-sight relationship unfold on Instagram. Screw you and your new love. You know nothing of heartbreak. But by series’ end, that enmity immediately dissipated. Good on you, Vegas. You deserved to be here.

As for Washington, D.C.: With the Caps’ triumph, the championship drought that has cursed D.C. sports since 1992 is over. In reality, I wanted only the Capitals to end it. The Super Bowl–winning Skins of my childhood are long dead; the Skins of my adulthood are difficult to root for, for myriad reasons. It feels like the Wizards will always be frustratingly mediocre. And I grew up an Orioles fan, before the Nationals even existed. Sure, I wouldn’t object to success for other D.C. teams, in the way I would appreciate the success of people with whom I went to high school — we’re connected by proximity more than any real affinity. But it was always the Caps at my lunch table, always the Caps to whom my loyalty never wavered. They were built the right way, with a benevolent owner and quality management and coaching, plus a legitimate superstar who galvanized fans more than any D.C. athlete since John Riggins in his ’80s heyday.

Ah, Alexander Ovechkin. I love this man more than anyone I don’t know personally. It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve dreamed of seeing this happen for more than a decade running:

I cried. I called my parents, as one does in important life moments. Years and years of heartbreak culminated in this exact point in time. Truly, it was worth it all.