Like many baseball fans plan to one day visit all of the major league ballparks, it's a bucket list item for me to attend a game in all thirty National Hockey League cities. For some context beyond regularly attending games in Anaheim and to a lesser extent Los Angeles, thus far I've been to games in Detroit, Denver (Pepsi Center), and Phoenix (America West Arena). By the time Monday rolls around and I fly back to the Golden State I'll be able to add Verizon Center, Nassau Coliseum, and Madison Square Garden to the list. Much like when Derek attended a game at TD Garden between the Bruins and Capitals earlier this season, I'll share my experiences at each venue. Hope you'll enjoy this three post series of insight into some of the east coast NHL experience.
The Phone Booth
Home of the Washington Capitals, the Verizon Center is located in Washington DC a good three to four miles off the nearest highway. The driving experience is a major contrast to the west coast, as the highways are at most three lanes and take you on a curvy route through woodsy areas that only occasionally allow glimpses through to the buildings off the exits.
Another standout about the trip in is that the city doesn't begin immediately once exiting the highway, it takes a good mile or so until you start feeling you're in a city. The building itself is in an urban setting, with essentially all the parking being in multi-level garages or the occasional lot. We parked in a lot right next door that was connected through a Gallery Place that had restaurants, a movie theater, and other entertainment options nearby with a direct entrance to the arena.
Once inside the concourses felt much more cramped than any of the other buildings I've been to. It makes sense since space is at a premium in the urban setting, but with how low the ceiling is particularly on the lower level and how there are either concessions or some sort of table set up on both sides of the concourse it felt slightly claustrophobic.
I stopped at a table where the Red Rockers (the Caps version of the Power Players) were handing out red bracelets and towels to pick up a couple souvenirs, though got a bit of grief for the Travis Moen '07 SCF Ducks jersey I was wearing. I was told it wasn't "the worst jersey (I) could be wearing," and the Red Rocker "couldn't even right now" when I responded that it was okay and she didn't have to be jealous as I patted the Finals patch. As a true neutral this was the only real response the Ducks colors provoked, and I was able to enjoy the game and experience for what it was without any worries about outcome.
We took an escalator to our seats in the upper level for the game, and walking around the upper concourse appreciated the window walls at the ends that allow you to look out on the city. The seating bowl is is interesting, with the mid-level only existing along the sides of the rink and the 100 section extending back at the ends.
The arena ended up pretty well full a few minutes after the just-past 8 PM local time puck drop. It was amazing the amount of Alex Ovechkin jerseys at the game- my dad likened it to the amount of Michael Jordan jerseys one would see at a 90's Chicago Bulls game. Ovechkin was far and away the most represented player, with a good 80% of the fans with a number and name on their jersey electing to go with the Caps captain.
The next most represented player was Nicklas Backstrom, with John Carlson a distant third; the most unique jersey I saw was a Stadium Series Andre Burakovsky. Only ran across a couple of the black, blue and bronze era jerseys, with Ovechkin again being the most represented player but also saw an Olaf Kolzig one. There was (as you'd expect) a sizable contingent of Rangers fans, with the Blue home jerseys the most popular, and a wide variety of players from multiple eras represented.
As for the local fans themselves, the Capitals crowd is probably amongst the least impressive I've experienced at any major professional sporting event. There was a noticeable lack of intensity or energy unless being prompted, be it the regular *honk honk honk* of an air horn or a single loud fan in the 100's prompting a "Lets go Caps" chant. The only player that really generated any excitement was Ovechkin, with the fans making noise whenever he started building up a head of steam with the puck carrying in to the offensive zone.
A moment that stood out in particular was an obvious offside call that scuttled what would've been an odd-man opportunity that the crowd loudly booed- a shocking seemingly "uneducated" fan moment for a franchise with 40 seasons of history. During the third period in a commercial break just past midway mark the scoreboard ran a video with various movie clips that the crowd went nuts for, punctuated by Tom Green saying "Unleash the fury" twice before the whole crowd joined in yelling for the third and final time at the end leading in to the face off.
The fans reminded me very much of Kings fans pre-2012, although with even less swagger and attitude. The only meek response to the "Lets go Rangers" chants were pockets of "Rangers suck" replies in opposite dueling time. The visiting New York fans were cold near the end of the game though, taunting Ovechkin with a sing-song "Ovie" chant in the final minutes of the game.
Ran in to a fellow Ducks fan at the game who lives locally and is a Washington season ticket holder. The only other non-Capital or Rangers jersey I saw at the game was a solo Boston Bruins jersey, so the Ducks were the third most supported team at Verizon Center that evening. It was a really cool moment coming across another Anaheim fan (with a Cam Fowler jersey no less!), a nice surprise to get to talk Ducks for a couple minutes before the game.
The Game Itself
This was the first time I'd seen an Eastern Conference game in person, and it's really remarkable to see the pace of play in person. The game is much more open and free flowing, with speed placed at a premium and the majority of the defending being stick-based rather than taking the body.
The first 40 minutes reminded me very much of New York's trip to Honda Center, as they pressed the Capitals with two high forecheckers in the offensive zone and had a third in support taking away the pass along the near wall to by and large bottle them up and carry the play. Outside of Ovechkin's power play goal and a Backstrom chance that Cam Talbot was absolutely larcenous against stretching post-to-post to glove off the cross slot one-timer, the Rangers had the vast majority of quality chances and shots.
In the third period Washington got most of their push against an opponent playing its third game in four nights against teams in playoff seating, but Talbot was equal to every shot. Despite New York essentially shelling for the final period, just a handful of the 14 scoring chances war-on-ice had the Caps tabbed for in the last 20 seemed particularly dangerous. At this point in the season the Rangers are one of, if not the best team I've seen in person this year.
The game was very much worth the 5+ hours spent in the car traveling both ways, though I suspect of the three it'll probably slate lowest experience-wise. The Capitals put on a good show at Verizon Center, with most breaks filled with an organ rather than playing music, but have noticeably fewer fan contests/giveaways or videos featuring the Capitals players than seen in Anaheim.
While it's understandable that the fan base isn't exactly rabid considering the one Stanley Cup Final trip (and subsequent sweep) and just two Conference Final appearances over 40 seasons, it's easy to see why compared to other more intense east coast supporters their fans seem a bit like "little brother." As for the team itself Washington looks like a playoff division finalist at best, though probably a first round out considering they're likely to face either the Rangers or Lightning/Canadiens.
There was also this that I noticed while leaving:
The second post in this series featuring the Montreal Canadiens vs New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum will be up on Sunday.
Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricTheHawk