For D.C. fans and Capitals' long-suffering faithful, the agony is finally over

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Washington Capitals (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The emotions that had built up for so long finally had a place to escape, and the fans of the D.C. metro area let it all go Thursday night in the streets surrounding Capital One Arena.

It’s exactly the chemical reaction that should result from 26 years of a city waiting to celebrate a major pro sports championship, stirred in with three decades of one particular franchise’s constant letdowns and heartbreaks.

The Capitals have long been the Washington team closest to winning a title, enrapturing the region and triggering the parade that hadn’t happened since January 29, 1992 — when the city saluted the Super Bowl 26 champions.

All but the most die-hard locals have long ago lost all reason for expectations about that NFL team. The Bullets/Wizards have only recently teased the fan base with two trips to the second round of the NBA playoffs in the last four seasons. The Nationals have crushed dreams at a surprisingly rapid rate in their 14 years since moving from Montreal; on the other hand, for the 33 years before that, the city had no baseball team at all.

The Caps, though, were America’s hockey bridesmaids, the team with the legacy of, for example, blowing five 3-1 playoff series leads. They were perpetually in position to be the sport’s ultimate Cinderellas, climbing the mountain from the worst expansion debut in NHL history (8-67-5 in their inaugural 1974-75 season), except they kept falling off the mountain when everyone least expected it.

Each premature playoff departure — by increasingly championship-caliber rosters, which since 2005 had a transcendent superstar — drove the dagger in deeper and deeper.

The blade was pulled out Thursday night, though, and the wound healed instantly. Two curses exterminated in one night: The sight of Alex Ovechkin with the Stanley Cup overhead unleashed a torrent of anguished memories — and simultaneously consigned them to history.

“Man, when they lost to Montreal, I cried,’’ said one fan on F Street in the wee hours of Friday morning. He was part of the crowd jammed around the set of the local affiliate still broadcasting the post-game show, and he had passed around an inflatable Stanley Cup — posing with it, kissing it, then handing it off for others to repeat.

And he was referring to the 2010 playoffs, when the Caps had won the President’s Trophy, had an absolutely loaded roster and a brilliant, charismatic coach in Bob Boudreau … and lost in seven games to the eighth-seeded Canadiens and hot goalie Jaroslav Halak in the first round. It was so typical and, for years, so Caps.

The torture of Caps fans date back to at least the Easter Sunday disaster of 1987, the four-overtime loss at the old Capital Center to the Islanders, Pat LaFontaine scoring the game-winner at just before 2 a.m. The image of goalie Bob Mason standing helplessly with the puck behind him as their season ended in cruel fashion, might as well have been the team’s logo for the next 31 years.

So much of the sadness from then until this spring came at the hands of the Penguins, a rivalry discussed here when they met again in the East semifinals. The fact the Capitals finally overcame the Penguins in that series, coming back from losing the opener at home and knocking them out for the first time since 1994, gave many their first real hope that the drought would be broken.

It also fueled at least two of the more NSFW chants from fans who had made a tradition of gathering on the steps of the National Portrait Gallery across the street from the arena. “(Forget) you, Penguins!” and “(Forget) you, Crosby!” were alternated over and over along with the others.

Ovechkin finally having the last word over Sidney Crosby, of course, was not lost on the crowd. This ended 13 years of having to watch the latter hoist the Cup, get Olympic gold medals draped over his neck and simply be branded a “winner” — all while Ovechkin was branded as various things, including at times someone who needed to be traded in order for the Caps to ever win. But never as a winner.

The biggest explosions of emotion from the fans — out in the street and inside the arena at the viewing party as the trophies were passed out and the victory laps commenced — were saved for Ovechkin: the greatest pro athlete the District had seen in decades, and the most star-crossed.

The cheers and tears at the sight of Ovechkin with the Cup surpassed every other moment the locals had doubted they’d ever see again from this team. From any of their teams.

Of all the failing teams in D.C., none had teased as constantly and painfully as the Caps.

The teases were now over, and so was the drought, and so was the angst. The sweet release of joy on Thursday night didn’t slow down for a long time.