Savoring the Historic Week That Was

Some time near 8:30 Friday night, Capitals’ fans, having spent weeks residing in a purgatory of indeterminate postseason fate, received an invitation from an seraphim angel named Radek Dvorak to enter an unearthly realm of ecstasy.
At that moment in Raleigh, North Carolina, at 19:48 of period 2, while his team was playing for nothing but pride, the Florida Panthers’ right winger ripped a low wrist shot past Carolina Hurricanes’ netminder Cam Ward to stake the ‘Cats to an unlikely 4-2 lead. The shorthanded tally sucked the life out of a sold-out HBC Center. It also occasioned a big surge in beer swigging and the hugging of strangers by Caps’ fans following in Washington.
A win Friday night and the ‘Canes would have secured the Southeast division title — their third since 2002. Two hours earlier, failure in that endeavor seemed unfathomable; this was a team that had spent all but about two weeks in first place in the Southeast, was just two seasons removed from a Stanley Cup victory, and now had on its heels a Capitals’ team that had known only last-place finishes the last three seasons.
Hockey hopes spring eternal in spring in many parts, but not these. That’s the legacy within which the Era of Ovechkin dawned. And true to script, during Friday’s third period Panther after Panther made a parade to the penalty box, their two-goal lead eventually halved and netminder Craig Anderson under a near 50-shot seige. A spring of supreme stress here coalesced into a dungeon of the highest duress. Samsanov Agonistes.
“In Washington,” one of the Hurricanes’ broadcasters commented early in period 3, “the clock can’t move fast enough.”
Truer words were never spoken. Eventually the game clock in Carolina arrived at zero, Pinehurst no. 3 beckoning the ‘Canes, and in that instant, Caps’ fans were removed from all past April ills and into a springtime Friday night frenzy the likes of which they hadn’t seen since 1998. A Friday night of free-flowing frothies and free love — with perhaps dozens of little babies named Radek arriving at Sibley and Suburban next winter.
Saturday morning HockeyWashington awoke to a surreal reality: seeing the Caps, with a victory that night, move from ninth in the East to third. Better still, the Capitals’ fate was at long last in their own Misson hockey gloves. Actually, by virtue of Carolina’s Friday night flop the Caps technically were already in third, by virtue of playing fewer games and being tied at 92 points with the ‘Canes, but Saturday night’s game against Florida was the team’s final exam on the season — worth 90 percent of its grade.
Red OutIf Friday night was a sudden shockwave to the league standings, Tuesday night at Verizon Center was a sonic boom and a one-color kaleidoscope of unity delivered by a region ignited by an amazing sports story. One sensed within a rapidly enlargening hockey supporting community here a collective hunger to get behind a buzz-generating team. The Redskins lost more than they won under Joe Gibbs II. There’s a pedestrian quality to the Wizards — no longer really bad, but never really good, either. The ‘Nats are rebuilding and years away from contending. On Tuesday night in Verizon Center sports Washington was represented in unprecedented volume and unified uniform.
The home crowds for hockey have been growing and large for a couple of months now, but Tuesday’s ranked in another supportive realm. It was so startling to see the Sea of Red precisely because so many enemy sweaters had long filled so many home seats. If there were 18,000 fannies in the seats Tuesday night, 17,500 of them were Caps’ supporters.
“That was the best [home] crowd I’ve ever seen,” Mike Vogel told me over the weekend.
Better than the white-out postseason crowds of the powerful late ’80s Caps’ clubs at Capital Center?
“Those crowds weren’t loud like Tuesday’s,” Vogs added.
All we knew when the team returned home from its spectacularly successful six-game road trip was that it would play before large crowds here — likely, sellouts. We had no idea that the stands-shaking Redskins crowds of raucous old RFK would at last get a run for their rancor on F St.
For hockey.
Late on Wednesday afternoon the Caps’ communications staff, struggling perhaps like the fanbase to keep up with the speed of the hockey’s team’s ascent, announced the continuation of home Red Outs. The modest delay may have played a role in Thursday night’s home environment for Tampa: quite good, but not nearly as Red, not nearly as ear-splitting. The Caps’ nerves on ice that night, too, had a hand in quieting the mood a bit.
For some among HockeyWashington, Saturday’s first eighteen hours were a painful crawl toward a determinative destiny, while for others, savoring suddenly arrived at salvation, time couldn’t stand still enough. After all, morning paper reading, home cleaning, and car oil changing were all performed in third place. I imagined a Saturday morning Sea of Caps’ caps at Costco, among Saturday household chore performing the Red Army wearing the Capitals’ relic Old School look of a failure past now transformed in mere hours’ time into something fresh, vibrant, honor-bestowing, and most especially hip.
Chinatown was Red with anticipation at 4:05. I saw it.
Arriving early in Verizon Center’s press lounge, I surveyed beat media to see where Saturday night ranked in their list of most significant sporting events they’d personally covered. For the Washington Times’ Corey Masisak, only two events — the ACC basketball tournament won by underdog Maryland a few years back and his first Army-Navy football game rivaled the hockey he’d chronicled this March and April and most especially this past week.
“Maryland was like the 6 seed and they went down beat the numbers one, two, and three [seeds],” he told me.
WTOP’s Jonathon Warner has been involved in professional sports journalism for more than 30 years. For him, Saturday night had only George Mason’s Cinderella run in the NCAAs two years back as a rival to the Revival in Red.
“This is huge — this run they’re on, it’s actually given me chills of late,” Warner told me.
“You can feel the buzz,” Steve Kolbe told me. “Washington, D.C., as a whole has grown as a hockey town. That puck drops tonight, we’ll all have goosebumps.”
The Times’ Thom Loverro told me that in his 16 years at the paper Saturday night’s game “ranked right up there” among all regular season games he’d followed in Washington.
Next I asked the Washington Post’s Tarik El Bashir.
“I think you heard me down in the press room earlier tonight ask, has there been another comeback this dramatic in Washington pro sports history?”
“This team was left for dead on Thanksgiving day,” he added.
Tarik’s covered the Indy 500, “where you have 350,000 people,” he noted. But when he considered the lead-up to Saturday night, all of the must-wins the Caps had to have, Saturday raced to the top of his biggest games list.
“We awoke a sleeping giant here,” owner Leonsis, clad again in red, observed late Saturday night. That was a most pleasant observation to encounter Sunday morning, confirming that last week really wasn’t just a dream.

This entry was posted in Carolina Hurricanes, Corey Masisak, Eastern Conference, Florida Panthers, Jonathan Warner, Media, Mike Vogel, Print, Puck Sodas, Radio, Schadenfreude, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tarik El-Bashir, TV, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Savoring the Historic Week That Was

  1. vt caps fan says:

    Great post.

  2. Kim says:

    A while back you had a post about pregame. Every game my family goes down to ice level for pregame. Almost always the same people there, plenty of room, etc. On Saturday it took us longer to get into the Arena (longer lines, waiting for the bobblehead, etc.). We could not get down to the ice there were so many people. Just stood back in a row of seats and looked at all of the people in red. I had the stupidest grin on my face, and I am sure all around me thought I was crazy as I kept saying how great this was.
    Have not had that much fun at a sporting event since college.

  3. TG says:

    And I know it’s kinda late to post this, but anyone else think that Jokinen came out before the game started and thought, “Oh. So THIS is what a playoff game feels like!”?

  4. Juan-John says:

    Want some more nice numbers? As of 1:10pm today, here’s the number of reader responses on the various WaPo sports team blogs (excluding the Redskins Insider):
    Wizards Insider: 1
    Nationals Journal: 12
    Soccer Insider: 44
    Capitals Insider: 153

  5. Mr. Plank says:
    Thought you guys would enjoy this. Good luck against Philly!

  6. Jim Hershberg says:

    Well done. Onwards!

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