WASHINGTON – Who would ever have imagined it? The Capitals are the “it” team in Washington.
They have the most popular athlete in the city – sorry, Redskins – and expect to sell out every game. Their first attempt at holding a fan convention this year sold out weeks in advance, and the rush of people when the doors opened had team owner Ted Leonsis evoking comparisons to Woodstock, or Walmart on the day after Thanksgiving.
The most complimentary analogy, however, comes from the club’s megastar.
“Everywhere we go I see people with Caps jerseys and Caps hats and they recognize us. My first year in the stands were maybe a couple thousand, and now we’re sold out,” two-time NHL MVP Alex Ovechkin said. “It’s like Canada.”
For the rest of the D.C. sports, it’s like Siberia. The baseball Nationals are finishing back-to-back 100-loss seasons. The basketball Wizards went 19-63 last season, matching their worst mark for an 82-game schedule. The football Redskins are on the verge of a meltdown, getting booed at home and losing on the road to a team that hadn’t won since 2007.
The Capitals, meanwhile, are proof that winning and savvy marketing can go a long way. The team was a perennial playoff participant for much of the 1980s and 1990s and even made it to the Stanley Cup final in 1998, but it never captured the imagination of the city until Leonsis and general manager George McPhee rebuilt the team around Ovechkin, who has an engaging, gregarious personality and is arguably the best player on the planet.
The next step is a biggie. After a first-round playoff loss in 2007 and a second-round post-season exit last season, it is Stanley Cup or bust when the Capitals open their regular season Thursday at Boston. Few are disputing that this team has the talent to do it.
“Alex has won all these individual awards,” Leonsis said. “To take the next step into immortality, you have to win the Stanley Cup. Because he gets that, and he’s internalized that, that permeates everything. He’s driven, and the team’s driven that’s what we have to do.”
The Capitals have become more than Ovechkin, and even more than Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, a trio of young players on track to become stars in their own right. The success of the team’s AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pa., has spawned a pipeline of talent that makes roster cut-down day much more difficult than it used to be.
“I believe this team can qualify for the playoffs for the next decade,” Leonsis said. “We’re going to be loaded for a long, long time.”
The immediate question is whether the Capitals have a goaltender to take the team to the Cup eight months from now. Veteran Jose Theodore is coming off an inconsistent season and was benched in the playoffs, but coach Bruce Boudreau felt that 21-year-old Semyon Varlamov didn’t yet have enough experience to warrant the No. 1 nod going into training camp.
“What do we have to be overconfident about?” Boudreau said. “We’re a team romantically everybody wants to see us win because we’ve got Alex. We expect to be good and want to be good, but overconfident is the last thing we have a right to be.”
If nothing else, the team should get a boost from the unprecedented level of enthusiasm in the stands and on the streets. Now that the people are hooked, the players don’t want to let them down.
“We got people in the seats, we got enthusiasm, we got people buying jerseys,” team captain Chris Clark said. “Now it’s up to us to really show them. Follow us – and we’re going to go somewhere.”