If the Caps win today in game six, not only will they advance to the second round of the playoffs, but they’ll also close Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum forever. Next year, the Islanders are moving to Brooklyn, NY, to play in the Barclays Center.
When CSN Washington’s Chuck Gormley asked Caps captain Alex Ovechkin about this possibility on Friday, he strayed from the team’s message that it was just another game.
For the last four seasons, the Capitals had been on a steady decline. During their Bruce Boudreau era runs for Presidents’ Trophy, they were D.C.’s team. For fans since the 70’s and young transplants in suits, Rocking the Red was all the rage.
In 2011, the team started going downhill. Boudreau was fired, with three coaches taking his place since then. Meanwhile, the Nationals got good. The Caps were no longer fashionable. The hockey wasn’t the same either. Instead of exciting run-and-gun matches, the Caps played overly defensive games and then, under Adam Oates, just plain bad ones, missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Despite claiming a sellout every night, Verizon Center was littered with empty purple seats.
“We love this,” Karl Alzner, who scored Thursday, told me. “The fact that we see everybody getting excited for it and feeling good about our team and about our chance at winning some games, that’s what’s exciting for us.”
There was a time when we doubted he’d ever show up, but, last March, Evgeny Kuznetsov finally came to the Caps. Three KHL seasons after George McPhee winked at a TSN camera and drafted the young Russian, Kuznetsov left his hometown team, Trakor Chelyabinsk, to live in Alex Ovechkin’s house in Arlington, Va., and play North American hockey. Thursday night was his coming out party.
After going scoreless in his first four career playoff games, Kuznetsov tallied two goals and an assist in game five. It wasn’t so much that he scored or recorded a team-high three points, it was the confidence that Kuznetsov oozed. We saw it on display all the time in the KHL– from his wacky celebrations, brash interviews, and constant production of highlight-reel plays– but that swagger hasn’t come easily this season. Kuznetsov had to learn a new position, center, and he had to learn how to be successful in a new, nuanced system under veteran head coach Barry Trotz. On top of that, the 22 year old had to learn a new culture and language.
On Thursday, those struggles and insecurities evaporated in front of 18,506 at Verizon Center. It was beautiful to watch.
In recent years, as the Capitals began to falter and the Wizards and Nationals rose to playoff status, the crowds at Verizon Center slowly shrank. Though the team announced its 264th consecutive sellout after game two, there have often been large swatches of empty purple seats in the last few years.
Now, the Caps are back in the playoffs. They have a new coach, a new mentality, and are confident that they can finally bring a Stanley Cup to Washington.
With the resurgence of the team, the fans have come back. On this Friday night, the crowd brought back memories of late-game Sergei Fedorov goals and the hope and promise of the electric, run and gun Caps. At one point during game two, the decibel level reached 112. For a lot of the night, the numbers were over 100, nearly breaching the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s permissible noise level exposure limits.
The Rock the Red spirit is back and it’s pushing the Capitals forward. The team knows it. Here’s what they said after the game.
For almost 60 minutes, the Washington Capitals looked in shambles as they faced the New York Islanders in game one of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The game was filled with bad decisions and sloppy mistakes. Washington has high hopes for this spring, but Wednesday’s performance put those dreams, at least for now, in doubt.
After the game, the locker room was filled with frustrated players, with many Capitals saying they lacked focus and threw away the fundamentals of hockey.
All that is a recipe for a hard practice full of yelling and skating the next day. Barry Trotz was asked Thursday if he considered doing that. His response was simple: “No.”
Coming into Wednesday’s game, the Washington Capitals were confident. With a new coach this year, they had turned into a crisp, well-structured team, generally controlling the puck and therefore the play. They finished the season tied for the eighth highest point total in the league.
“In the past we were maybe sort of a rush team,” forward Brooks Laich, a veteran of the light ’em up Presidents’ Trophy winning Capitals of 2010, said. “I don’t think we’re as high flying, high octane offense as we once were, but I think we’re a lot more difficult to play against this way. It should bode well for a sustained playoff run.”
After Tuesday’s practice, NHL.com beat writer Katie Brown noticed Karl Alzner and John Carlson wearing new playoff hats. Overlaid on a silhouette of Abe Lincoln (with a hole in its head*) read the text My Man. Naturally, no one really understood the significance of the phrase or what it was doing on a team-prepared hat. Sure, the Abe Lincoln silhouette was a nod to the Caps’ post-victory Honest Abe award. But what about the phrase?
“The one thing I would love the hockey world to know about Alex is that has the worst style ever,” Brouwer said of his captain. “He only has a few suits and he wears a tuxedo shirt with one of his suits.”