Despite the Caps’ last-second win over the Winnipeg Jets last night, this season on the whole has fallen short of fans’ expectations. The Caps now sit second in their division, just a point ahead of the Jets, and an unimpressive seventh in the Eastern Conference. But I don’t need to tell you how the Caps are doing — you’re hearing it everywhere, and if you’re at games, you might be feeling it, too.
I find it hard to believe that the Caps’ disappointing season has already had an impact on attendance and fan support, but last time I was at a game I really felt the difference. It was Saturday, Dec. 3, and the Caps were playing the Senators. It’s not a rivalry, and there isn’t a huge Ottawan presence in D.C. I recognize that.
On a hunch, I counted the empty seats in Verizon Center, waiting until roughly the mid-point of the second period to account for stragglers. Forty-two empties in section 121. Forty-four in section 120. And those were by no means outliers — they looked pretty average.
I know that in an arena with a capacity upwards of 18,000 that doesn’t sound like much, but by my math it adds up to a couple thousand. On a Saturday night. No bad weather, no unusual start time. I asked a fan whether attendance felt low, and he said, “It’s dead in here.” I asked why, and he responded, “No one thinks something special is going to happen tonight.”
It reminded me of the final minutes of the Nov. 29 game against the St. Louis Blues. The Caps trailed 2-1 and I couldn’t shake the feeling that there might not be 10 people in the arena who really, truly thought we’d be tying it up and going to overtime. And while the odds of tying a game in the final minute or two are always small, I’d argue that the Caps have, in recent seasons, been the kind of team where you don’t give up hope.
The team is 3-2 since that game against Ottawa — 4-2 if you count the OT win they earned that night — so maybe things are looking up. I just hope we start to feel it in the air at Verizon Center soon, because the quiet and the empty seats are a real downer.
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