By: Joe Pohoryles
The recent successes of Washington, D.C. sports has reinvigorated the DMV as fans celebrate the championships of some — the Capitals, Nationals, Mystics and even the Valor of the now-folded Arena Football League — and hope for a better future for the others.
The parades down Constitution Avenue are a welcome sight after a decades-long championship drought. Before Alex Ovechkin hoisted the Stanley Cup over his head, and before Howie Kendrick’s fly ball dinged off the foul pole, the city suffered much postseason heartbreak.
Here is a list of the 10 most heartbreaking playoff exits of this century, in chronological order:
Capitals: 2010 First Round vs. the Montreal Canadiens
This Caps team had a legendary regular season, collecting the most wins in franchise history at that point and entering the 2010 playoffs as big Stanley Cup favorites. The first instance of greatness in the “Young Gun” era, this roster never had the chance to reach the big stage, as they were downed by Montreal in one of the biggest first round upsets in Stanley Cup playoff history.
The majority of this disappointment came from the expectations coming in. This group had yet to fully establish themselves as chokers in the playoffs, with this exit an early step.
Disappointment Meter: 4
It was extremely disappointing to see the talent of this squad go to waste, especially in one of the biggest upsets in hockey history, but there was still plenty of hope for the future. The championship window was still wide open.
Capitals: 2012 Second Round vs. the New York Rangers
Without a historic regular season to increase the pressure, the only motivation here was getting over the hump and into the conference finals. They faced a strong Rangers team hungry to exact revenge from the previous year’s first round, in which the Caps knocked them out in five games.
This team was actually the underdog this time around. Just creeping into the playoffs as the seventh seed, they upset the defending champion Boston Bruins in seven games before taking on top-seeded New York.
The Caps were playing catch-up the entire series, as they trailed 1-0, 2-1 then 3-2 at different points in the series, winning each even-numbered game heading into Game 7. They lost Game 3 at home in triple overtime (which I witnessed in-person) and a crucial Game 5 in regular overtime. After going down 2-0 early in Game 7, the Caps comeback attempt fell short with just one second period goal as the team was anti-climactically shut down.
Disappointment Meter: 3
The Caps were never really in control of the series, and fell to the better team in New York, but still, Game 7 losses always hurt knowing you were just one win away.
Nationals: 2012 NLDS vs. the St. Louis Cardinals
The first playoff appearance in Nationals history was an exciting one. Jayson Werth’s walk-off home run in Game 4 was the first big playoff moment in team history, and remained the best one until 2019.
At the forefront was a then-19-year-old Bryce Harper capping off a Rookie of the Year campaign. Ryan Zimmerman was in the prime of his career at third base, and Stephen Strasburg was the young, up-and-coming pitcher who was… sitting in the dugout.
Coming off Tommy John surgery the year before, Stras had an innings limit for the 2012 season, and GM Mike Rizzo shut the pitcher down in September with much controversy. The Cards stole Game 5 after Drew Storen allowed four runs in the top of the ninth inning, and the team’s breakout season was finished.
Disappointment Meter: 3.5
The fact the team led by six runs early in Game 5 is tough to swallow, but this was an inexperienced team tasting their first bits of success. They were on the rise, it just was not their time just yet.
Redskins: 2012 NFC Wild Card vs. the Seattle Seahawks
Soon after the Nationals’ Rookie of the Year got bounced from the postseason, the Redskins’ Rookie of the Year suited up for his first playoff game.
Robert Griffin III lit up the league in his first NFL season, and the 2012 second overall pick led a seven-game winning streak to close out the regular season and earn the team’s first division title since 1999.
The Skins faced the Seattle Seahawks and fellow rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, ending the first quarter with a 14-0 lead. They failed to score any more as Seattle came back to win 24-14. The Redskins would not reach the playoffs again until the 2015 season.
Disappointment Meter: 4
This team did not have Super Bowl aspirations, but winning a home playoff game would have been nice. This loss would not have been as disappointing had RG3 not torn his ACL during the game, the first step of a downward spiral that killed the franchise’s hopes for greatness after just one season.
Capitals: 2015 Second Round vs. the New York Rangers
Another second round match-up with the Rangers, another series requiring all seven games. The Rangers were technically the favorites again, but with the top two Metropolitan division teams facing off, it was really anyone’s series.
And this was not the same cat-and-mouse series we saw in 2012. The pendulum did not swing back and forth this time. The Caps took a 3-1 series lead, each game decided by just one goal. It seemed that things were finally breaking this team’s way. After several years of disappointment, the team could taste the Eastern Conference Finals. Just win one more game, that’s all it will take.
Oh, what’s this? They lose Game 5 in overtime after taking a 1-0 lead halfway through the third period? Tough break, but hey, just put them away in Game 6. Oh, what? They allowed the Rangers to take a 4-1 lead before finally losing 4-3? No, this can’t happen. What’s that? They lose Game 7 in overtime 2-1 after leading 1-0? Just like Game 5? So they blew a 3-1 lead, in one of their biggest chokes of the Ovechkin era? Oh… alright then.
Disappointment Meter: 5
I’ll take “So close, yet so far,” for 200, Alex. Yeah, this one hurt.
Capitals: 2016 Second Round vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins
Avoiding yet another match-up with the Rangers, the Caps got Sidney Crosby and the Penguins instead. The Caps’ postseason history against the Penguins was not pretty, but it didn’t matter. This was a new year, and the Caps were the best team in hockey. After such a terrible exit last year, this team was ready to seize the cup. A 4-3 overtime victory to take Game 1 was a good start. This team was buzzing.
Then they got stung.
Three one-goal losses in a row, including Game 4 in overtime, put the team down 3-1. The series could have easily been 2-2, or even 3-1 in the Caps’ favor, but here they were. The Caps delayed the pain by taking Game 5 by a score of 3-1, and Game 6 saw them overcome a 3-0 deficit to force overtime and keep the season alive.
Then Nick Bonino ripped the city’s heart out. Ok guys, this got old a long time ago.
Disappointment Meter: 4.5
From a distance, it looked like Pittsburgh kept this series well in-hand. The reality is the Caps had the chance to win any of the games they lost. Compared to the year before, it did not hurt as much, but seeing as Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup and the Caps entered the postseason as the best team, it is safe to assume this year was as good a chance to win as any.
Nationals: 2016 NLDS vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers
After falling 3-1 in the 2014 NLDS to the eventual champion San Francisco Giants, and missing out on the playoffs in 2015, this was finally the year to play deep into October. 2015 free agent signee Max Scherzer pitched his first playoff game in a Nats uniform.
The Dodgers were a worthy foe, but with 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper leading a stacked lineup, it seemed this was the year. The Dodgers snatched Game 1 at the hands of Clayton Kershaw, but the Nats won the next two games handily. Just one more win to reach the NLCS.
Game 4 saw an eighth inning RBI single from Chase Utley lift the Dodgers to a 6-5 win. Would the Nats capture Game 5 and win their first playoff series in team history? Have you even been paying attention? No, a four-run seventh inning from the Dodgers made the difference in a 4-3 win that sent the Nats packing yet again.
Disappointment Meter: 5
One win away from the NLCS, and the first ever series win. Twice. Losing by one run both times. This really looked like the District of Chokers.
Capitals: 2017 Second Round vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins
I could copy/paste what I wrote for 2016 vs. the Penguins, and it would still mostly apply in 2017. Another Presidents’ Trophy for the Caps. Another second round meeting with the Penguins. Another 3-1 Pittsburgh lead.
Though the rest of the series did not play out the same as before. A three-goal third period clinched a comeback for the Caps in Game 5, and a dominant Game 6 performance saw the team take a 5-0 before settling on a 5-2 win. Series tied 3-3, momentum swinging in the Caps favor, and the offense is humming. They blew the 3-1 lead in 2015 and failed to overcome a 3-1 deficit a year ago, so this was finally the year. It had to be.
Instead, the team went out and laid a goose egg. Just like that, when it appeared control had slipped from the Penguins’ hands, the Caps get shutdown in another Game 7 by a score of 2-0. Should we have even gotten our hopes up this time?
Disappointment Meter: 5
At the time, it appeared the championship window had closed. There were even talks about trading Ovechkin and/or Nicklas Backstrom. It seemed the hockey gods came up with new ways to shatter Caps fans’ dreams every year. Oh, and Pittsburgh won the Cup again. No guarantee the Caps would have gotten the same result had they won, but it was another golden opportunity wasted.
Wizards: 2017 Second Round vs. the Boston Celtics
The Wizards had made several trips to the playoffs in previous years, but this was the first time they got this close to the conference finals in a long time. John Wall’s go-ahead three-pointer in the dying seconds of Game 6 will stand as an iconic playoff moment in Wizards history, and it meant the Wizards were one win away from the Eastern Conference Finals.
Of course, the reality is these two sides were playing to decide who would fall to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers — and even if they upset the Cavs, there was a slim chance of beating the stacked Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals — but getting to play on that stage would be a great step for this team.
Instead, then-Celtics standout and current Wizard Isaiah Thomas splashed for 29 points and dished 12 assists, while Kelly Olynyk dropped 26 points off the bench to overcome Bradley Beal’s 38 points and Wall’s double-double (18 points, 11 assists) in a 115-105 Game 7 loss for the Wizards.
Disappointment Meter: 3.5
As mentioned, the team’s ceiling appeared to be a conference finals appearance, so there was not a blown championship opportunity, but losing Game 7 is always a killer. The fact that they have not made the playoffs since only exacerbates the pain.
Nationals: 2017 NLDS vs. the Chicago Cubs
A year after blowing the NLDS against the Dodgers, the Nats were set to take down the reigning World Series champions. With Harper set to hit free agency after the 2018 season, time was running out to deliver a championship.
This was another back-and-forth series in which the Nats were forced to play catch-up. After getting blanked in Game 1, they powered in five runs in the eighth inning of Game 2 to tie the series. The Cubs scored a run in both the seventh and eighth inning to make the difference in Game 3, winning 2-1 while taking the series lead by that same margin.
The Nats shut out Chicago 5-0 in Game 4, cushioned by a four-run eighth inning, and they finally had the chance to win their first playoff series. Game 5 saw the Nats take the lead early, but a disastrous relief appearance by Scherzer saw the Cubs turn a 4-3 deficit into a 7-4 lead. A comeback attempt was rendered futile, and Harper struck out swinging to end the game, series and season in a 9-8 loss. It would be the final playoff game of the Bryce Harper era.
Disappointment Meter: 4.5
The Nats never led the series like they did the year before against LA, but they had plenty of opportunities to win at least one of the games they lost. By this time, the Nats had become one of the biggest disappointments in baseball.
Well, that was depressing to look back on. Thankfully we have some recent trophies to make all these shortcomings feel like a distant memory. Here are some nice pictures to cheer you up.
(Cover Photo Credit: Patrick Smith/Getty Images)