As the clock ticked away in what was probably the best and most exciting one minute and thirty seconds of hockey the Washington Capitals played this season, Verizon Center seemed poised to lift off the ground.
Here were the Capitals, leading the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings 4-2, but playing six-on-three thanks to two Washington penalties and Detroit goalie Ty Conklin being pulled from the game. Yet as the Red Wings applied the pressure, the Capitals responded, and the mixture of tension and joy in the arena was almost unbearable.
“I was on my toes on the bench,” Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. “I can’t imagine what the fans were like.”
When time ran out with no Detroit goals in that final 1:30, the fans were delirious.
No, make that victorious.
The Capitals’ win over the Red Wings on Saturday afternoon accomplished a lot for a regular-season game.
For the players, it meant their greatest challenge to date this season was met.
“I think we took this as our biggest challenge this year,” Green said. “Playing against the defending champions is pretty personal, so we are excited to get this win. We rose to the occasion, which is what we need to do from here on out. I think we were waiting all week for this game.”
For the coach, it showed the character of his team, particularly the stand his team took in that final 1:30.
“It showed sacrifice,” Bruce Boudreau said. “That’s what I told the team at the end of the game. I said, ‘You came together as a team. Everyone was blocking shots and doing whatever they had to do to preserve the win.’ ”
For the fans, it meant that the ghost of the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, when Detroit fans filled the building and overwhelmed Caps fans, had finally been buried.
Caps fans stepped up and made it clear that what happened in those 1998 finals will not happen again.
There was a healthy contingent of Red Wings fans among the sellout crowd, though it was hard to tell exactly how many among the sea of red that now fills Verizon Center for the Capitals’ “Rock the Red” campaign.
You discovered the Red Wings’ presence when Ville Leino scored with less than two minutes remaining in the first period to give Detroit a 1-0 lead. And they gained some strength when, with less than a minute left in the second period, Johan Franzen scored a power-play goal to break a 1-1 tie and put the Red Wings up 2-1 going into the final period.
But then, with 12:52 gone in the third period, Detroit fans went silent and then seemed to disappear from the arena - sort of like Lions fans - as Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in a 1:16 span to put the Capitals on top 4-2.
When Ovechkin scored his second goal, I think you could have heard the noise all the way in Greektown.
Boudreau had been warned about the Red Wings fans that can sometimes make a Verizon Center game seem like an away contest for the home team. The last time the Capitals beat the Red Wings in the District was 2000.
But even before the game started, Boudreau felt this would be different.
“I think Washington drowned out Detroit pretty good today,” Boudreau said. “It was a fabulous energy crowd. Everyone fed off it. You could tell before the game that this was going to be a high-energy game. The crowd was really into it.
“I never played Detroit in this building, but the other guys told me [the Red Wings] usually bring a huge contingent and they are usually winning. I thought once we tied it up, you didn’t hear much from the Detroit side the rest of the game.”
Though the Red Wings have hit a rough spot of late, losing five in a row, they are still on top of the Central Division with a 31-11-7 record and 69 points. The Capitals, leading the Southeast Division, have a record of 31-15-4 and 66 points. It’s quite possible that these two teams could meet again in the Stanley Cup Finals.
If that does happen, Detroit fans can forget their travel plans. There will be no room at the inn.