- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 12, 2008

It was Game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and Washington Capitals fans had their game faces on last night at Verizon Center.

It was a loud, raucous and supportive home crowd that greeted the Capitals as they took the ice before their opening contest against the Philadelphia Flyers. And it was an even louder, more raucous and overwhelming home crowd that was on its feet roaring when their star, Alex Ovechkin, put his team ahead for good with a late third period goal for a 5-4 win, taking a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

This was playoff hockey, something Washington hasn’t seen since 2003, and perhaps no one has seen anything quite like this before in Washington, which has seemed to transform like never before, into — yes, a version of Hockeytown.

“It’s hard to get wilder than it has been the three previous [home games],” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “But I had to grab the guys and tell them they were up because they couldn’t hear me.”

Veteran great Sergei Fedorov, who has been part of Hockeytown with the Detroit Red Wings, said the crowd support was incredible.

“I had a broken stick and I couldn’t hear it break because it was so loud,” Fedorov said.

After taking a 2-1 lead in the first period on goals by Donald Brashear and David Steckel — hardly offensive threats (it was Brashear’s third career playoff goal in 50 games. When Donald Brashear is scoring goals, you have to believe it is your night) the Capitals gave up three goals in less than four minutes in the second period. They were outskated and outhit for most of the period and the momentum was all with Philadelphia, with a 4-2 lead.

But these young Capitals were hardly intimidated and came out to tie the game 4-4 in the third period on two goals by Mike Green. Then came the goal by Ovechkin — a purely talented, Ovechkin move, intercepting a pass and outhustling the Flyers defense for an open shot on goalie Martin Biron — and soon the chants followed of “M-V-P, M-V-P.”

This was the first NHL playoff game for many of these young Capitals. Before the game, the question was raised if they could handle the playoff pressure. Boudreau has said what they went through in the final weeks of the season — winning 11 of their last 12 to clinch a playoff spot in the last game — was essentially the playoffs, and it gave them confidence they could come back from the 4-2 deficit.

“We knew we had been in that situation before,” Brashear said. “We knew we could come back. We had done it many times before.”

An exhausted Ovechkin said there was no panic in the locker room.

“We felt comfortable that we could come back,” he said. “We felt we could still win. We just had to go out and play our game.”

Boudreau chalked it up to confidence — and embarrassment.

“I think the belief that they had done it in the past was there, but I think they were embarrassed because we thought Philly outplayed us pretty good up to that point,” he said.

When it was over, the fans were delirious — and there wasn’t a Flyers fan in sight.

The issue of the large number of visiting fans — particularly in the playoffs — has been a source of controversy in the past. Previous owner Abe Pollin came under fire in the 1998 playoffs for allowing large blocks of tickets sold to Detroit fans when the Capitals faced the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup finals.

In an Internet chat earlier in the day hosted by The Washington Times, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said he did all he could to make sure Capitals fans would have a strong presence in the arena last night.

“We did everything we could to sell only to Caps fans,” Leonsis said. “I am hopeful we will have a red out. But if our fans re-sell their tix on Stubhub, etc., what can we do? We did not sell any tickets in blocks to any Philly organizations.”

It seemed to work. It was a Capitals crowd, and fans looked for ways to make their presence felt. A number of fans came sporting various versions of Green mohawk haircuts, emulating the Capitals young defenseman, and wearing “Rock the Hawk” T-shirts.

Others, like Jason Earnest, 16 from Falls Church, and Gabriel McCorkle, 18, from Vienna, found other ways to express their support for the team. Sitting high up in section 413, they had their shirts off and their chests were covered in Caps blue and red up to their necks. “This run of games has been awesome,” McCorkle said. “They clinched the division [April 5] on my birthday.”

Most fans, like Brian Carter, 43, from Sykesville, flew the team colors in a more subdued ways, such as wearing an Ovechkin jersey: “I’ve been watching this team through the good times and the bad times. I was there on Easter Sunday through the four overtimes. These are good times, because this is a young team, and it could last for a while. Ted [Leonsis] knows what he’s got now, and he’s not going to lose it. You need a winner in Washington.”

By the time the lights went out and the players were introduced, what Leonsis had was indeed a Washington version of Hockeytown — Capitals red everywhere in sight. By the end of the night, he had a town celebrating a playoff win.

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