Capitals Home Opener (2 of 2)

Alex Ovechkin high fives fans on the way to the locker room after warmups. (Photos by Chris Gordon)

Caps fans, finally back at a game, watch warmups.

Caps fans, finally back at a game, watch warmups.

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.”

The real reason why the Caps lost.

The real reason why the Caps lost.

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.

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  • Emily Casto

    Great- Goat’s got shin splints, I have Coke Zero withdrawal and where the hell was “Unleash the Fury”? Isn’t that supposed to get the fans pumped up? Instead, poor Hendy’s going to have matching shiners that make him look like Batman. I think we should give him an Honorary Gordy Howe Hat Trick since he couldn’t assist w/ Brouwer’s goal only because he was in the locker room after fight #2. Seriously, though- 46 games left… it’s gonna be okay.

  • lrhflute

    I love this game! I love this sport! And I love my Caps!! It really was like going home again….I was so happy to see my friends at the concession stand (one of whom used to work at the Caps Center and has literally watched me grow up from when I was 12) the guy who used to check my bag, and the people in the section. It was so good to see so many familiar faces….even if most of them did bail after the 2nd period. ;) I wouldn’t have been anywhere else last night! :)

  • Brouwer Rangers

    I spy, with my little eye … a Brouwer Ranger!

  • Manda

    I really think “Unleash The Furry” would’ve helped. Fans were starting cheers in their respective sections, but as a whole, I felt an overall lack of cohesive excitement from the VC fans. I didn’t even know Goat was there. We need The Horn Guy back STAT!

  • http://www.facebook.com/raymitten Ray Mitten

    How long before pitchers and catchers report? Hard to get interested in a hockey season that starts in the end of January.

  • http://twitter.com/kat326 Rachel Cohen

    Wait…. there was no “Unleash the Fury” last night?!

    What.

    W H A T.

  • vtavgjoe

    Given that I’ve only been going to games for four years now, I have to say that last night’s game was the worst fan experience I’ve had at VC. The “improvements” to the ticketing system generated 10+ minute lines getting in as some tickets, cards, or credit cards didn’t scan correctly (just give me my d*** paper tickets back – I tried to print mine out the afternoon of the game, and the Ticketmaster account manager was down, so I had a 25 minute wait on hold with Guest Services for a very grumpy rep to e-mail me the pdfs of the tickets, but that’s another story)…
    The 400 level escalator was stopped, the video monitors were going in and out, the ref had no audio announcing penalties, no fury unleashing (I’ve seen them not do that before when the Caps were way down), and the 19/20 players on the home team forgot to show up.

    I really thought that they would go all out for this game, given the perceived need to win fans back, but I guess not.

  • Yv

    Long waiting to get in, plus it was so cold outside, plus no horn guy, as a result nothing left to unleash or to rock, everything and everybody were frozen.