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The Capitals beating the Penguins is extra special for legions of D.C. sports fans

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The fraught playoff history for local teams makes the Capitals’ win an even bigger deal in a unique sports city.

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Washington Capitals at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the minutes following the Capitals’ biggest goal in at least 20 years, the man who owns the franchise sounded as relieved as he was excited.

On Monday, the Capitals finally vanquished the Penguins. It happened on an Evgeny Kuznetsov breakaway at 5:27 of overtime that clinched a 2-1 win in Game 6 and Washington’s second series win against Pittsburgh in 11 tries all-time.

Owner Ted Leonsis told a bunch of reporters somewhere deep inside Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena that it was “almost embarrassing it’s taken this long for us to get past it.” He meant his team’s incredible inability to get past its western Pennsylvanian rival.

It was time. Losing these series was getting grating for a lot of reasons.

The Capitals have lost a lot, but they’ve been part of a broader D.C. story.

The Caps’ last series win in this rivalry was in 1994. Losses followed in ‘95, ‘96, 2000, and ‘01, then again in a new era in ‘09, ‘16, and ‘17. Only the three most recent had anything to do with the players on the ice on Monday, and maybe it’s silly to even bring them up.

But for Capitals fans, all of these losses to Pittsburgh have stung harshly. All five of the Penguins’ Cup wins — and the three in the last decade — have come after going through Washington, usually in the dramatic fashion the Capitals used on Monday.

There was a home blowout loss nine years ago, an overtime loss in this same building two years ago, and an inexplicable shutout loss in Game 7 at home last year. All of them hurt, because every playoff loss to a rival hurts. But they hurt a little more in the District, where postseason failures by various teams compound to make each one more painful.

Since the Capitals made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998 (and lost once they got there), local teams have been uniquely miserable in their efforts to get beyond conference semifinals. Washington squads were zero for their last 13 in games where a win would’ve placed them among the final four in their sports.

Among all the city’s teams, the Caps have arguably had the most torturous recent past. The Penguins were the biggest single reason, but not the only one. The Rangers were another.

Until Monday, Alex Ovechkin was the best team-sport athlete on the continent to have not made a conference final. It would’ve been a huge shame if he’d never gotten there.

Disappointment is hardwired into D.C. fans’ psyches.

I think a lot about something a woman told me in a bar on Georgia Avenue in northwest D.C. last October, seconds after Bryce Harper struck out to seal a devastating Nationals loss to the Cubs in the National League Division series:

“You’re a D.C. sports fan, you’re basically just a masochist.”

D.C. is a weird sports city. Really, it’s a sports area, with many of its fans pouring in from nearby Maryland and Virginia. The region has more transplants than most, and one of its big teams, the Nationals, only got here this century. But sadness is sadness for any fanbase, and the D.C. fans who root for all the D.C. teams have tasted sadness in bulk.

Washington isn’t the only city known for playoff futility, obviously, and there’s something to be said for having teams at least make the playoffs often. But D.C. teams’ total exclusion from even the second-biggest stages in their sports, the conference finals, had carried on to an outrageous degree. It was time for it to end. I write this as a Pittsburgher who lives here now and will not enjoy getting taunted at work all week.

Because of D.C.’s unusual stretch of postseason failure, an entire generation of fans has no idea what it’s like to have the entire sports world focusing on one of their teams at the end of the season for a reason other than someone getting fired or into trouble.

The Capitals are only halfway to a Stanley Cup, but what they’ve done so far is important and worth celebrating.

Sports aren’t just about players. They’re about fans, too. It’d be best for everyone who cares about the Capitals, inside the organization and out, if the team keeps winning. But even if the Capitals don’t win another game, they’ve given their fans something to yell about and be happy about that a bunch of them had never gotten to feel before. The fun and energy a fan gets during a Cup run is every bit as special as the memories afterward.

It feels quintessentially D.C. sports that the Capitals’ biggest win in two decades came on a Monday night. This hasn’t been a city where the masses have poured out of the bars and onto the streets to celebrate big wins, if for no other reason than that there have been so few. Some of the people this win meant the most to were watching in settings like that, but a lot more of them were sitting in living rooms in Maryland and Virginia, going wild. Twitter is not representative of much in the real world, but after the Caps won, it probably was.

For years and years, people from this area have had to put up with people who moved here from elsewhere celebrating postseason successes in their midst. Nobody deserved Monday more than the locals who now have the chance to celebrate some May fun themselves.