Alex Ovechkin high fives fans on the way to the locker room after warmups. (Photos by Chris Gordon)
At 7:12 PM on January 22 six ounces of vulcanized rubber hit the ice at Verizon Center for the first time in 258 days. It was May 9, 2012 when the Washington Capitals held their last home game here, a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers in Game Six of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Since then, there was a Game Seven in New York, a long summer, and an even longer fall. The almost four month long NHL lockout kept fans across the continent away from the game and for some separated them from their second home.
“I’m overjoyed to be back at Verizon Center because I feel like part of me was missing when they were gone,” said Caps fan Melissa Blum of Germantown, Maryland. “I grew up watching hockey and it’s my favorite thing so when it wasn’t there that was unfortunate. Now that they’re back so I’m happy.”
“It’s going to take a little bit of time to knock the fan rust off,” William Stilwell, better known as Goat, said. “This time of year I’ve usually gotten some yelling callouses build up but tonight it’s like boom, right into the thick of it. I’ve been doing a lot of screaming in traffic, things like that.”
The players were also back where they most like to spend their nights. They’ve been on the ice together for two weeks now and played one game in downtown Tampa, but this was their first time back in front 18,506 under the lights at Verizon Center.
“It’s always nice playing here,” defensemen Karl Alzner said after the game. “It feels good being in our room. ”
The Caps, though, didn’t let the good feelings stay for long. The game wasn’t pretty for the Washington faithful. Penalties — and the terrible job they did killing them — sloppy play and rocky goaltending finished the team off before it even got to the end of the second period.
“It was a really bad effort by us,” Alzner added. “It’s very disappointing we brought that game for our first game back.”
For some of the fans, though, it wasn’t surprising.
“I kind of expected it to be a little shaky at the beginning — a new coach, a new system, a lot of new faces, they haven’t played in months,” Goat said. “It’s a lot of factors and they aren’t necessarily excuses, which I don’t usually appreciate, it’s legitimate reasons they could be a little shaky right out of the gate.”
Many aspects from years past are gone for the Caps. Alex Semin and Dennis Wideman — respectively the team’s second and forth leading scorers — have moved on. As have Mike Knuble and Tomas Vokoun. Dale Hunter, the team’s coach for most of last season, has gone back to London, Ontario. There are a lot of new things to used to. Not just on the ice either. Verizon Center, in one of the year’s most troubling decisions, has switched to Pepsi products, long known for their ability to destroy happiness. Chick-fil-a vendors now roam the halls, selling chicken sandwiches for a mere twice the normal rate. Goat, too, has something different to get accustomed to: new stands. The superfan is recognized for his loud yelling and stomping, leading the fan base in a chant of “Let’s go Caps!” when he’s shown on the big screen. Lately, though, there has been no stomping. Verizon Center replaced the removable end zone seats with ones that feature a much harder floor.
“They used to have those ones that were just on sheet metal,” Goat said. “Now they’re like concrete poured into a frame or something.”
“The first time I stomped on these I almost shattered my shin,” he added. “I was like, “Okay, I guess that’s gone from my repertoire. Unfortunately now it’s just clapping and yelling. I miss stomping — a lot. It was nice.”
As for the game, conditioning and difficulties adjusting to Adam Oates’s system are likely to blame for their poor play in Tuesday’s 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets. After such a flat outing in front their own fans, players promised to right the ship as soon as possible.
“It’s two games,” forward Joel Ward said. “It’s a long way to go. We’re not too worried about it. We just definitely got to go back to the drawing board and clean up a few things and we’ll be good.”
The good news for the Caps is the next game is no longer seven months away. The boys will be back at Verizon Center in less than 48 hours. That’s something to look forward to.