Super Bowls, finals and championship battles are practically a regular part of life in places like Boston and Pittsburgh — even Philadelphia, these days. But a couple of generations of Washington fans will be in completely unfamiliar territory Monday night when the NHL’s Stanley Cup Final begins: Their team will be competing for a title.
The Washington Capitals face off against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of their best-of-seven series at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas at 8 p.m. — bringing an end, finally, to a 20-year finals drought for the District’s four major sports teams.
Since the Capitals last appeared in the NHL finals in 1998, at least 3.5 million babies have been born in Maryland, Virginia and the District. That number jumps by many millions more if you take into account the years without a Redskins appearance in a Super Bowl or a Wizards run to the NBA Finals.
So it’s no wonder the title-starved District has been taken over in recent weeks by red-towel-waving, Alex-Ovechkin-jersey-wearing, Capitals-crazed fanatics as Washington’s NHL franchise has fought its way through three rounds of the playoffs to the league’s championship stage.
At rinks in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, kids are begging moms and dads to sign them up for hockey. In the District, bars are packed with people earnestly discussing the Capitals‘ strengths and weaknesses on the power play kill. Democrats and Republicans have found common ground in their appreciation for goaltender Braden Holtby.
On Saturday, when the team had an open-to-the-public practice — yes, we’re talking about practice — at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, the building was filled with well-wishers — an estimated 6,000 turned out to see the team off to Las Vegas. At the team store in the Arlington, Virginia, facility, the line went out the door. Trent Pratt, an employee at the shop, said it’s been “chaos” since the playoffs began.
As players took the ice Saturday, cheers erupted. Fans brought banners (“We believe!”) and signs (“We want the Cup!”). Owner Ted Leonsis tossed out t-shirts to the crowd with a cannon of an arm.
In the stands, Upper Marlboro, Maryland, resident Arthur Davis, 20, said he was there to be a part of history.
“When I’m old and have kids and everything like that, I want to be like, ‘Oh yeah, I definitely sent them off to go beat the Vegas Golden Knights,’” he said.
Jack Russell, a 16-year-old from Springfield, Virginia, wasn’t born the last time the Capitals made the Stanley Cup Final. His best D.C. sports memory, he said, prior to the Capitals advancing to the finals is just three weeks old — when the Capitals beat the hated Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.
“I’ve been a fan since I was in the first grade and all of the playoff failures, it’s kind of like it’s all coming together,” the teenager said. “It’s sweet to see Ovi finally make it.”
For years, the Capitals have given fans reasons to be skeptical come playoff time. For 13 years, Ovechkin, the superstar who has been the face of the franchise for more than a decade, had not made it past the second round of the playoffs.
Hockey, in particular, is a sport where the odd bounce or a missed puck can mean be the difference between celebration and torture. From that, superstitions can be born.
Dave Wiseman, a 57-year-old from Leesburg, wore two red hats — one facing forward and the other backward— at last week’s Game 7 viewing party at Capital One Arena, though neither featured the Capitals logo.
“Every time I wear the Caps hat, they lose,” he said.
Mr. Wiseman’s fashion choice paid off — and the Capitals advanced with a 4-0 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
After the game, fans by the thousands lined the National Portrait Gallery steps, celebrating en masse. In the street, drivers honked their horns in threes to the beat of the “LET’S GO CAPS” chant echoing throughout downtown.
The atmosphere certainly didn’t feel like the District was a “minor league sports town” — as ESPN’s Michael Wilbon called the city after the Capitals beat the Penguins. That Game 7 was NBC Sports’ most-watched hockey telecast ever in the District, with a record 12.6 rating.
Not everyone in town is rooting for the Capitals — Nationals star Bryce Harper, notably, is backing his hometown Vegas Golden Knights, despite the rest of his team’s unabashed embrace of the hockey franchise a couple of Metro stops away from Nationals Park (manager Dave Martinez, in particular, has made no secret of his appreciation of the Capitals, wearing Capitals hats and jerseys throughout their playoff fun).
Harper notwithstanding, the Capitals seem to have captured the imaginations — and the hearts — of the city.
Leaving practice Saturday, players were greeted by thousands of screams from fans who had lined up on the top floor of the parking garage.
“This is our year,” said Dorian Spadetti, a 40-year-old mother of three from Arlington. “This our time to take it.”
“It’s a pretty special moment,” Ovechkin said. “Even if you walk on the street, everybody was like, ‘OK. You’ve got this.’ You just feel like everybody’s all-in. Everybody is on the same page.”
Adam Zielonka, David Driver and Josh Luckenbaugh contributed to this report.
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