A reflection and a walk down memory lane of my first playoff series experience as a Washington Capitals fan, when the Capitals met the Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs – the year was 2008.
To refresh your memory of the sports highlights of 2008, the Giants defeated the favored Patriots in what would be known as one of the greatest sports upsets of all time, in Super Bowl 42, as the Pats entered the big game undefeated. The Philadelphia Phillies would beat the Tampa Bay Rays in five games to win their second world championship that October. The Boston Celtics won their 17th NBA Championship by defeating their hated rivals, the LA Lakers in six games.
Fast forward to 2016, where this Thursday night at the Verizon Center the puck will drop and Round One of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs will begin here in DC with the Capitals and Flyers facing off. These two teams are no strangers to each other in the playoffs; this will be the fifth time that they have faced each other in postseason play. There has always been bad blood between these rivals.
This match-up had me thinking back to the last time these teams met, the quarterfinals of the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs. Now, I am relatively young – I’m 23 years old and in my senior year of college. I have been following the Washington Capitals for 13 years, since I was 10 years old.
My uncle, who happens to live in New Jersey, introduced me to the sport of hockey. It’s no surprise that he is a Devils fan. I grew up in the Washington D.C. area so just by domicile, I started to pay attention to and follow all of the local teams. But there was just something about hockey that captivated me. When I started following the Caps, they had the worst record in the league, so I became accustomed to losing. However, I just held onto hope that someday the Capitals would begin to excel, as I knew they were set to have the number one draft pick later that summer and I was very excited about their future.
The weeks turn into years and here we are five years later and it’s 2008! The future has arrived. After a poor start that led to the firing of then head coach Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau took over the reins and the team got hot! The Caps went on to win the Southeast Division and they made the playoffs. Their first round opponent would be one of their long-term rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. I was pumped about the Caps in the playoffs and I was beginning to notice that it wasn’t just me who was excited, other people around me seemed to share my enthusiasm; there was a buzz in the air!
I was a freshman in high school during the 2008 series. Now I am a senior in college finishing up my education and will be receiving a degree in journalism in just a few weeks. Even though it’s been eight years, I still remember the 2008 series like it was yesterday. I remember exactly where I was when Ovechkin scored the game-winning goal in Game One. Unfortunately, I wasn’t at the Verizon Center or in my basement watching the game on TV. I was in attendance at a Nats game. It happened to be my first time in the new Nationals Park that opened just a few weeks ago. I was thrilled to be at Nationals Park but at the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Capitals and what was going on in their game! A playoff hockey game means so much more than a baseball game in April. I vividly remember getting onto the Metro that evening, as it was to capacity with either Nats or Caps fans. If you were out and about in DC that evening, you were likely either going to the hockey or baseball game!
Now keep in mind that this was 2008. Smart phones weren’t a common mode of communication and were definitely not readily available to most folks. The iPhone itself was still brand new. I didn’t even own a cell phone at the time, so my only resource to check the Capitals score was at the Red Loft bar in centerfield, which was showing the game. So much has changed in eight years. If I was in this situation today, how easy it is to stream the game to my hand-held device and or follow along via social media and the Caps or NHL apps!
As you can imagine, there were other fans who were also extremely interested in knowing how the Capitals were doing in their first game of the playoffs. The Red Loft was quite popular that evening and there was a large crowd of us who were all tuned into the hockey game.
When I got up to the Red Loft it was close, a 4-3 game in the third period. And then Mike Green scored to tie the game at 4 and everyone around me was going nuts! I felt like I was at Verizon Center even though I had never gone to an NHL game (I went to my first Caps game the next season). Late in the third period, greatness unfolded before our eyes. A very young Alex Ovechkin stole the puck and scored his very first playoff goal!!!! Here I was, an underage kid in the Red Loft high fiving a bunch of strangers but it was amazing! I went back to my seat confident that the Capitals got the win and shortly thereafter the Nats Park scoreboard showed the final score: a win in game one for the Caps – the stadium erupted with joy!
It was a wild ride home on the Metro. When the train stopped at Metro Center all the Caps fans that celebrated after the game got on board. There was a ton of “Let’s Go Caps” chants. All this excitement and it was only Game One – Six more (possible) games to go.
In celebratory style in the days that followed that game one win, I bought one of those “Rock The Red” tees. I distinctly remember wearing it to school the next week and I felt like the coolest kid ever. In the hallways, I started seeing more Caps hats and jerseys than I was accustomed to. Prior to that season, I had no team gear at all.
In very disappointing fashion, the Caps fell to the Flyers the next three games to go in a 3-1 series hole. I was worried but knew the team was still young. Still, winning is a lot of fun especially when you’ve seen your team lose a lot of games throughout your years as a fan. Believe it or not, the Caps rallied and won both Games 5 and 6. In Game 6 and in enemy territory, they trailed 2-0 before striking back and scoring four straight goals! That meant there would be a Game 7 back in DC.
Now, I’ve watched the playoffs a couple of times prior to that season but I never really thoroughly watched a Game 7. I had no idea what I was in store for. The Caps took an early 1-0 lead with a goal by Nicklas Backstrom. The Flyers scored two goals before Ovechkin tied it up in the second period. I was glued to the television. Nobody scored in the third so the game went to overtime. This was my first taste of #CardiacCaps! Unfortunately this series didn’t end the way any of us wanted. Joffrey Lupul scored in overtime to give the Flyers the series win. The Flyers continued through the Eastern Conference final where they lost to their intrastate rival, the Penguins, four games to one. The Stanley Cup match up paired the Penguins against the Red Wings. The Red Wings hoisted the cup again in 2008 for the 11th time.
Even though I was sad about the Capitals loss, I was excited about the direction the team was heading. Ovechkin and Backstrom were young studs, the Verizon Center was (and still is) the place to watch a NHL game, and everyone in the DC area was realizing that we may have a hockey team! My Dad was even feeling it as my excitement and enthusiasm for the Capitals inspired him to join along in my passion.
A lot has changed in those eight years since these two teams last met in the playoffs. A lot of development, maturity, growth and experience – and a fierce determination to win the ultimate prize – the Stanley Cup. It is time, this is our time – this very well may be our year – for me it’s been 13 years in the making, for some of you, I know it’s been since 1974.
A lot has also changed with myself too as a writer and a fan. One thing remains the same: the bad blood between the Caps and Flyers. The series was epic eight years ago and it promises to be epic again, starting Thursday night.
By Michael Marzzacco