WASHINGTON…The Washington Capitals tried, yes really tried, to gift wrap a win and two precious points to the Buffalo Sabres at the Verizon Center on Saturday. First it was Paul Gaustad, who gave Buffalo the 3-2 just past the midway point of the third, before the Caps Mike Knuble would tie it. Then Drew Stafford gave Buffalo the lead once again with just over three minutes to go, on a puck that was accidentally kicked into the net by the Washington defender.
But the Caps got new life thanks to an ill timed penalty with just over a minute to go. With six skaters to Buffalo’s four, the Sabres never got control of the puck, and Washington’s Jason Arnott got the equalizer, his 400th career goal.
From there, it was Alexander Ovechkin in the extra frame, scoring on a puck which was redirected twice and past Jhonas Enorth. The end result, a 5-4 Caps win. One point for the Sabres, but that tantalizing second point was oh so close.
But give a huge assist, and an important one, to the sports fans of Washington. It’s been ten years since the Ultimate Sports Road Trip last visited the Verizon Center for a Capitals game. What we found then was a sleepy team, with huge yawning gaps of empty seats, a dispassionate fan base, and a sport which was no more than a passing curiosity here in our nation’s capital.
Fast forward to 2011, and the Washington Capitals celebrate their 100th consectuive sellout. Owner Ted Leonsis appeared on the video board, thanking the fans for their support and imploring them to help carry the team right to the Stanley Cup. The seating bowl was a sea of red, fans dressed in Capitals shirts and jerseys.
And the noise. There’s a guy who blares his horn to get the “Let’s Go Caps” thing going. Another fan who bears a resemblance to the NY Jets’ Fireman Ed also makes his appearance on the video board, and the fans eat it up. As the Caps were attempting their comeback late, yet another video montage of sports movie clips exhorted fans to “Unleash the Fury”. The fans obliged, the building got as loud and as intense as any experience we have seen iin our travels.
Hockey has seen its share of troubles in certain markets. Sure, the Canadian clubs are well supported, and cities close to the 49th parallel, including Buffalo, are great hockey markets. The Original Six franchises, and cities like Philadelphia, are solid. So it is great to see places like Washington igniting the fire and bringing fans to the table.
The Verizon Center is a loud and very intimidating place for visiting teams. After last night’s game, Thomas Vanek admtted that Caps fans are a factor. “It gets so loud in here and so hard to concentrate. Just another thing that a visiting team needs to overcome.” Vanek is spot on. Much of the noise and enthusiasm isn’t computer or video driven either. Just spontaneous fan generated support. And just like in Buffalo, they do count off the goals here too… “One.. Two.. Three.. We want Four!”
The Sabres might become much more familiar with the confines of the Verizon Center after next week, as the Caps are shaping up as a potential first round matchup. Judging from what we experienced here on Saturday night, the Sabres will have their hands full, and not just with that pesky Russian guy wearing the number 8.