Watching this season's Washington Capitals do battle in an old rival's barn, far away from the bubbling vermillion sexpot of ecstacy that is le Centre Verizón these days, provides a singular perspective on just what this season-to-date has meant to the franchise in commanding respect, and to a long-suffering fan base in providing a jolt to interrupt a 35-year malaise. (Smelling salts, if you will.) We can eyewitness the plight of the opposing fan that is getting the message: When the Caps come to town, chances are it ain't gonna be pretty.
The Empire State Building might as well have been lit up all in red last night. As a warning.
When the archived reports and first-hand accounts of the last 10-game winning streak for the Caps surfaced, it seemed utterly tragic that, while excitement for the team was then percolating like Sunday morning's first mug of joe, such precious little success has visited this corner of the hockey world in the intervening 24 seasons.
The success that was enjoyed during that period was largely modest and unexpected, and from a team that wasn't supposed to achieve. Throughout the 90's, those who weren't Capital die-hards could scarcely call to mind anyone on the team worth mentioning in national discourse save Peter Bondra and "Olie the Goalie."
Today, the Capitals boast a pantheon of demi-gods known throughout the hockey world. When any one of Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, or Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck up ice with a flourish last night in Manhattan, cries of wonder from primary school-age boys seated in my row interrupted their otherwise incessant hunt for the nearest soft pretzel or soda vendor. Their eyes were transfixed. Their impressionable minds absorbed. Perhaps at the moment they felt a bit uneasy wearing Ranger blue. Grown men groaned, pecked away on their handheld devices.
I know the feeling exactly. In the early- to mid-90's, as a young fan, the Caps might have themselves put up a five spot on the Penguins at home, but the latter's overwhelming offense would seem always to ultimately prevail. But what goes around is coming around. And so, even a strong start yesterday by the home team, a re-claiming of the leads seconds after a tying score, and an impressive power play performance, could not break the #1 team in the league. The #1 team in the league. Approaching mid-February.
Heck, even Matt Bradley almost shocked the Ranger faithful again with a breakaway goal on Henrik Lundqvist.
When the Caps first stepped onto the Garden ice just prior to the opening draw, they were not greeted with the customary chorus of boos, the raining down of invective. All that could be heard was the afterglow of cheers for the beleaguered heroes in blue who trudged out moments before. And otherwise, silence. Awe. Anxiety? And yes, I don't need to re-tell it, the Caps' faithful were plentiful at the Garden again, and this time more emboldened than I have ever witnessed in any road arena. So what was heard was, instead, music to my ears. A vocal minority of heartily appreciative shouts in defiance of the historic MSG atmosphere.
Images on the big screen aloft celebrated the 1994 Stanley Cup win for the Blueshirts. That was then. This is now.
Post-game, the Ranger fan was dispirited. Rightly so. "It was closer than I thought it would be," I overheard in the concourse. Another fan, who was more personally affected by the night's loss, snapped at me, "You're not going to win a Stanley Cup with that goalie," but then brushed off any attempt at actual hockey discussion. I understood his obsession with the position and his unwillingness to engage. After all, King Henrik is all that the Ranger fan has to applaud. (And during the game, another "fan" resorted to distracting and threatening Jose Theodore with a laser pointer.)
Many more who make a living offering such assessments will continue to nitpick at the Caps' blueline and goaltending to expose some fatal flaw that will undo the rock stars from D.C. in the post-season. But I'm not concerned with that right now. (Or even with that other team across the Hudson which has just dramatically strengthened itself.)
What is most worth our time right now is to take full advantage of our position as fans of the most successful and entertaining squad in the game today. The team that's driving the NHL bus. Cheer your red heart out no matter what arena you're in. Make yourself at home. Unleash your own fan fury.
This is our time!