It was just the second game of the season - the first home game at sold-out Verizon Center - but fans filling up the building acted as if it were a Stanley Cup playoff game. And, for them, it was.
Every game the Washington Capitals play this season is a game leading to the Stanley Cup as far as their fans are concerned.
“I have high expectations,” said Ben Page, 31, of Thurmont, Md., wearing a Mike Green jersey. “Coming off last season, you have to be impressed with what they did in their own division. The Penguins series was really tough, but at this point we’ve got the grinders in front. Hopefully our defensemen will be healthy at the end of the year, and we’ve got two goaltenders. I feel confident.”
The Capitals gave Page and the rest of the screaming, stomping hometown crowd no reason not to be confident early in Saturday’s contest; they scored three times against the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first period and, after two goals by Alexander Semin, carried a 6-1 lead into the third period.
But it got a little hairy at the end as Toronto scored three in the final period to take some steam out of the crowd. Still, Capitals fans were on their feet and the building was rocking at the end of a 6-4 victory.
“We like the loudness of our building,” coach Bruce Boudreau said before the game.
Capitals fans didn’t disappoint. They roared as they watched a video montage of clips from last season, and whatever wounds were suffered in the seventh-game beating by the Penguins here in the Eastern Conference semifinals had clearly healed.
“They worked on their defense, and they have a great goaltender situation, so you have to be excited,” said Wes Cochran, 31, of Frederick, Md., wearing an Alex Ovechkin jersey. “The Capitals have been my hockey team for a long time, but I have to say that since Ovechkin came here it reignited my flame as a fan. They are fun to root for, with down-to-earth superstars, very likable.”
At the end of the first period, raucous Capitals fans gave their team a standing ovation - but not just any ovation. It was a show of appreciation for the dominance and excellence that they had just witnessed as the Capitals grabbed a 3-0 lead. It was as if the crowd were applauding the idea of what a great season this is going to be.
It is hard not to write about Capitals fans when you are writing about the Capitals on the ice, because the two are so connected. Three years ago, the Capitals were a last-place team and Verizon Center a morgue, save for the hockey die-hards. But now the Capitals have become one of the most powerful teams in the league, and with that growth has come the remarkable turnaround of hockey in this town.
It’s not rocket science - people like winners - but we are talking about hockey here. The Capitals have won before - 20 playoff appearances in franchise history, including a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. But the fever pitch this team has reached among fans in this town has never approached what it was Saturday night for the first home game. And these fans are all too aware of the contrasts to other sports teams here.
On the eve of the beleaguered Redskins home game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers - coming off their embarrassing loss to the lowly Lions in Detroit last week - it is impossible to ignore.
“You have to say congratulations, Ted [Leonsis],” Page said. “Let’s be honest; he’s probably the only owner in town now who the fans appreciate, and with good reason. As a Redskins fan, it is very disappointing on Sundays to watch the garbage that gets put in front of us.”
After Mike Knuble scored in the first period, the video screen showed a clip of Tom Cruise’s hilarious dance performance as a crazed movie producer at the end of the film “Tropic Thunder.”
Dan Snyder’s buddy and business partner wasn’t dancing like that in Detroit last week.