Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals was at Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay, Florida, but the real place to be for a Caps fan was 1,000 miles to the north.
Washington Capitals fans of all generations gathered together at Capital One Arena for a watch party on the biggest night in D.C. Sports in 20 years, having a chance to watch their team make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals.
There was no actual game played there. There was no ice to be seen. Instead there was a basketball court with letters spelling out #ALLCAPS at center court above the Washington Mystics WNBA logo.
There were towels draped over the seats on one side of the lower bowl, with the keyboard ALLCAPS design that was given away just two nights prior.
What party organizers didn’t realize was that they needed more towels to cover the seats. Fans came in and packed the arena, filling out both the entire lower level as well as the club level sections.
Again, there wasn’t a game played at that arena on Wednesday night, but the crowd noise and the decibel levels were loud enough that Capitals players might’ve heard them over a thousand miles south. The Capitals dominated the Lightning 4-0, finishing the job and taking the city of D.C. to a place they hadn’t seen in two decades.
Zach Bernstein, a 29-year-old from D.C., has been going to Caps games since the age of four. He told NoVA Caps back when fans attended games at the old Capital Centre, that the Capitals did a promotion where fans got free pizza if the team scored six goals. That’s almost similar to the promotion Papa John’s does today where pizza is 50% off if the Caps win and score five or more goals. He remembers his first game which they won 6-3. Now 25 years later, he was among the many in attendance on Wednesday night
“For Game 7, you want to be here. You want to be with all these people just cheering your hearts out and making it as much like you’re watching the game in person as you possibly can,” said Bernstein.
Perry P. of D.C. has also been a Caps fan since the 90’s. His love for the Caps stemmed from watching the old channel Home Team Sports. Perry was a Bullets fan but began watching Caps games on the basketball team’s off days, and had a liking for goaltending great Olaf Kolzig. He recalled the last time the Capitals made it to the Stanley Cup Final back in 1998.
“It was pretty amazing. It was disappointing at the end but it was cool living up to it,” said Perry.
“Pretty rough wait because it was not just the Caps. We’ve been waiting for any team to make it this far for so long,” added Perry.
It wasn’t like the Capitals had bad teams for the last 20 years. It’s been quite the contrary. Over the last 10 years, the Capitals have built some great teams and revitalized the fan base to “Rock the Red”, but just couldn’t get the job done.
Michael Montero, 30, of Ashburn talked about how extra rewarding it was to see the Capitals get this far in a season where many “experts” predicted they wouldn’t even make the playoffs.
“It was great to see it all come together finally with a team that wasn’t supposed to do it, because we had all these teams (in the past) that were supposed to do it,” said Montero.
When Alex Ovechkin struck at 1:02 of the opening frame, you could feel an entire city wanting to blow the roof off the arena at 7th and F. Street.
— NHL (@NHL) May 24, 2018
As Andre Burakovsky broke his scoring slump in the second period with not one but two goals, it not only boosted the 23-year old’s confidence but the confidence of the D.C. and Caps faithful, that their team can get the job done.
Additionally NoVa Caps caught up with fans that are a part of the “loser generation“, those folks that were born after the last “major four” D.C. sports championship: the 1991-92 Washington Redskins, who won Super Bowl 26. Mike Penie, 24, was too young back in 1998 to really know how big that Stanley Cup Final run was, but is a longtime Capitals fan, going to games with his dad. He talked about how much it meant to see his favorite player and this generation’s hero, Alex Ovechkin, finally get over that hump, and reach a Stanley Cup Final.
“It means a lot. Ovi has been putting the team on his back for such a long time and it’s so good for Ovi to finally get to the Cup Finals, he deserves it,” said Penie.
Penie, like many fans were on the National Portrait Gallery steps celebrating the win. Fans gathered on the steps, crowded the streets, climbed on street light poles and trees and had a variety of chants. From “We want Vegas”, to “Let’s go Caps” as well as “F— the Penguins”, it was quite a scene that’s been mirrored in other cities after their sports teams had big wins. It was finally our time.
That celebration, for many, had to be moved underground for those who came into the city via Metro, as trains stopped running at midnight. But the festivities continued at the platforms of the Gallery Place-Chinatown station with strangers high-fiving strangers and “Let’s Go Caps” chants erupted while fans waited for the subway. Penie thought the Capitals did an excellent job putting the event together.
“Having free entry to the arena and having Caps fans there, it was just like being at a game except better, because it was free. They should do this for every away game,” added Penie.
David Solkowitz is a grad school student over at Hebrew College in Newton, Massachusetts, located outside of Boston. Solkowitz was initially going home to Bethesda for the weekend for a friend’s Bar Mitzvah, but after the Capitals won Game 6 he heard about the watch party and decided to come down just a few days early.
“How many people would wake up at the crack of dawn to drive eight hours to watch a game in an arena where the game is not even being played? It made it all worth it though. The result, I mean that’s the best part. Eight hours in the car is worth every second I got to experience tonight,” said Solkowitz.
It was those fans and over 11,000 others that got to experience D.C. sports history. There were no playoff demons, no chokes. The Pat Lafontaine’s and Nick Bonino’s were nowhere to be found. This was a night that belonged to Washington D.C.
As the minutes and seconds started dwindling down in the third period it felt like waiting for the ball to drop on New Years Eve. When the clock struck zero another drought ended.
The Capitals became Eastern Conference Champions and the first team to represent D.C. in a championship matchup in 20 years. Now the Caps are just four wins away from ending a 25-year drought of being the first team in D.C. to win a championship, but even bigger than that: a 43-year hiatus before capturing the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
By Michael Marzzacco