- - Thursday, May 31, 2018

Washington sports fans have been so hungry for the moment that will come Saturday night — witnessing a championship game here, in the District — that they’ve been showing up in ridiculous numbers at Capital One Arena just to watch on the jumbotron screen the first two games of the Stanley Cup. Didn’t matter that those games were played thousands of miles away in the Nevada desert.

For Game 2 on Wednesday night, nearly 15,000 fans abandoned their big screens at home and the comforts of their own living rooms to come to the arena to watch their team win 3-2 to even the series at 1-1.

Now, finally, with Game 3 Saturday night, Washington fans get the gift of watching a championship game live, in their own city.

It should be a much different experience than the last time local sports fans had this chance — when the Capitals hosted the Detroit Red Wings in Game 3 of the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals.

There were people in the streets then, too. And the arena was filled. But the problem was that at least half of those fans were Red Wings fans, as they bought as many tickets as they could for the games in Washington.

Those days are gone, for many reasons. One, teams tend to be protective of their home ice, with policies in place to restrict the ability of out-of-town opposing fans to buy tickets in force.

Secondly, the demand locally for Capitals tickets has risen dramatically over the past 20 years.

The last time, the arena, then known as MCI Center, had just opened. There was a transition taking place for the fan base that had been centered, for the most part, in suburban Maryland, where the Capitals had played in Landover at USAirways Arena. The Capitals had just 10 sellouts that first year at MCI Center, and were 19th in attendance in the National Hockey League, averaging 15,275 per game.

Another difference — Alex Ovechkin. He changed the landscape for hockey in this area. The Russian became the centerpiece of the “Rock The Red” promotional campaign.

Driven by Ovechkin and perennially winning regular season teams, Capitals games regularly sell out during the regular season, and Stanley Cup finals tickets are far more coveted than they were 20 years ago.

And 1998 was just six years removed from the last championship in town — the Washington Redskins’ Super Bowl XXVI. The gap in the town’s championship resume then wasn’t nearly so huge as it is today, the intense desire to end it not nearly so pressing.

You can see that clearly in the thousands who showed up downtown this week just to be part of the Capitals viewing parties.

There were no viewing parties at MCI Center for Game 1 and Game 2 in Detroit.

Ironically, Susan O’ Malley, then president of Washington Sports & Entertainment, told The Washington Post before Game 4 in 1998 that they were considering opening up the arena for a viewing party for Game 5 — charging, of course, a $10 admission that would go to charity.

“Fans would be able to come into the arena and sit anywhere they want,” she said. “And the seats that are available to buy as season tickets would be marked ‘This seat for sale.’ Hopefully, it would be a festive atmosphere for fans — and an opportunity to look forward to next season.”

They never had a chance to do it, since there was no Game 5 — the Capitals were swept in four games by the Red Wings.

That’s one big difference between this time around and 20 years ago. When Capitals fans finally got a chance to see a Stanley Cup game at home, their team was already down 2-0 to a clearly superior team. There was not much hope the Capitals would turn it around.

This time, thanks to Washington’s 3-2 win in Game 2 Wednesday night, tying the series at 1-1, Capitals fans can file into Capital One Arena Saturday night feeling good about their team.

And, odds are they also don’t have to worry about having a Golden Knights fan sitting next to them.

I wrote earlier this week that I thought Washington blew its opportunity to win this series by failing to come away with a win in Game 1 on the road after scoring four goals. I still think when the series is over, they will look back on that missed opportunity.

Washington’s record at home during the playoffs — they’re only 4-5 at Capital One Arena — is reason enough for concern.

“We need to take advantage of our own rink, our own familiarity and focus on game 3,” said Braden Holtby, whose epic save late in Game 2 preserved the 3-2 win.

These are not familiar circumstances for Capitals fans, though. This is something rare and unusual — the moment of witnessing your team battle for a championship in your town. It has been a long time coming.

⦁ Thom Loverro’s “Cigars & Curveballs” podcast is available Wednesdays on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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