- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 7, 2007

Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon threw the puck down for Caps fans on the 2007 season two hours before the home opener last night at the Verizon Center. When asked about Alex Ovechkin taking a stick in the face in Friday night’s 3-1 season-opening win in Atlanta, Hanlon said, “He had his tooth knocked out. He didn’t miss a shift. … If you can’t play with knocking your teeth out, you better find another sport.”

No more kid stuff, baby. School’s out.

The theme of the Capitals this year, after two years of rebuilding, is results to show for that rebuilding — results that include the team’s first playoff appearance since 2003. Even Hanlon himself, in talking about the philosophy of playing time this year, referred to a strategy that has gone from “development to winning.”

For Caps fans, it is about time. They have had to endure the growing pains of owner Ted Leonsis’ plan for several years now and have developed a grudge about having to commit their hard-earned dollars for a work in progress. As they milled about on F Street with the sun setting on an hot night not befitting the start of hockey at the Verizon Center, fans were ready to buy into the whole mantra of Leonsis — “change.”

“I have been waiting for this since April,” said Tony Kling, a 52-year-old youth hockey coach from Beltsville. “Being out of the playoffs has been killing me.”

Kling was far from the only one frustrated by being done by April. Longtime Caps goalie Olie Kolzig was in the net for the Caps’ Stanley Cup Finals run in 1998. He echoed the expectations of the fans who came to Verizon Center last night.

“It has been four years since I have been to the playoffs,” Kolzig said. “Being done in April stinks. We have finally got the pieces of the puzzle in place, and now it is time to get it done. I am part of that puzzle, so we all have to step up and make sure we get in the playoffs, and then anything is possible.”

Fans hovered around the CSN stage set up on the sidewalk on F Street. As Caps general manager George McPhee made his way up to the stage for an interview, one fan ran up to him, slapped him on the back and said, “Thanks for making this team better.”

The festive atmosphere before last night’s opener against Carolina was typical of any pro team’s home opener, but though the expectations are higher, they are not foolishly talking about Stanley Cup aspirations. They just want a taste.

“I think they can make it to the second round,” Kling said.

It will take at least that kind of showing, if the Caps want to build up their fan base. Leonsis says sales are up, but there is nothing like a playoff run to get the blood flowing in the District.

“This town loves a winner,” said Joe Kaplan, 36, of Fairfax. “If they win, people will show up.”

This town also loves a star, and the Caps have one in Ovechkin, although he may be more popular in hockey hotbeds like Canada and Europe than he is here in the District. That could change with a playoff run. This town has a group of young stars in the making and some already made — Gilbert Arenas with the Wizards, Ryan Zimmerman with the Nationals and Jason Campbell with the Redskins. But Ovechkin is at another level when it comes to talent, and the best place for talent to express itself is on a playoff stage.

Hanlon knows the onus on raising the profile of hockey in the District ultimately lies on the shoulder of his team on the ice.

“Our marketing team does a great job,” he said. “Our PR department won first place in the PR department last year in the NHL. Ted has priced the tickets right, but at the end of the day, it is a lot easier to bring people into a building when you are winning, and that is our mission.”

They came to the building last night, filling the rafters, with many of them who did not come to the three preseason home games getting their first live look at the new high definition Verizon Center scoreboard hanging over the ice and their players live in the new red, white and blue jerseys.

“I love the new jerseys,” said Kaplan, who had not yet gotten his, still wearing an old Adam Oates jersey.

His friend, Dur Berrier, a former local resident who now lives in California but always comes home for the opener, was in 2007 mode, wearing a new Ovechkin jersey.

Caps fans got a great shot of their superstar’s new look on the hi-def scoreboard before the game, when they showed a closeup of a smiling Ovechkin, with his missing tooth. The fans roared in approval. By the end of the night, after a 2-0 win over Carolina, it was the look of a winner.

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