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A Letdown, But the Caps' Buzz Lingers

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Washington Capitals' magical jaunt through 2008 -- which included dramatic recoveries from a wretched start in the regular season and an uneven beginning to the playoffs -- came up one comeback short last night.

But throughout another earsplitting evening in Chinatown, which concluded with Washington's 3-2 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the team's longtime supporters talked about a comeback of a different sort: the hockey team's rapid journey in recent weeks from a nadir of apathy and near irrelevance back to the foreground of the local sports landscape.

"You have to earn it; I think we've earned it," owner Ted Leonsis said of the recent wave of media and fan attention. "It's hard to turn something around, let's be serious. You have a team, and it's good but it's not good enough, and you say you're gonna blow it up. You get criticized, and sometimes it doesn't look like the plan's gonna work, and it does.

"And so we met our goals for the year. I've sat in front of you guys a lot of times and said we didn't meet our goals. At the start of the year I said the rebuild was over, and we wanted to make the playoffs. I don't think anybody can say we're still rebuilding."

The fan base said much the same about itself. An evening that ended with the owner and his players talking of the future in the team's solemn dressing room had begun with those fans pouring into a neighborhood that was infused with red over the team's late season push. Longtime supporters marveled at the pre-game scene, with neighborhood bars packed, the streets thick with scalpers and T-shirt salesmen doing a steady business.

It was, fans said, a far cry from even the very recent past. Season ticket holders recalled spreading out their belongings in a near-empty arena late last season, offering free tickets to lure their friends to games and wondering if it was even worth their while to come to an arena often dominated by visiting crowds.

Then came veteran minor league coach Bruce Boudreau, the mega-contract for star player Alex Ovechkin, three major acquisitions at the trade deadline and the pulsating finish to the regular season.

And as the Nationals got off to the worst start in the major leagues and the Wizards struggled with injured stars and apathetic crowds, the atmosphere at hockey games changed. The club sold nearly 5,000 units of apparel such as T-shirts featuring its playoff slogan -- reordering the merchandise three times -- and is more than 20 percent ahead of last year's season ticket renewal rate. The dozens of scalpers prowling the area last night were asking up to $250 for upper-level seats and $500 for lower-level seats.

"Oh my God, you don't understand how many people are asking me for tickets," said Tracy Morrow, 37, of Reston, who used to beg friends to join her at games. "This morning I probably got 20 text messages: 'Please get me tickets, please.' I'm like, 'You're on your own.' "

Several key pieces of the team's late-season push face uncertain futures -- Sergei Fedorov, for example, declined to address his future plans last night -- and some longtime fans were similarly unsure whether this recent excitement could be replicated.

But as the fans stood and cheered at the end, several hoisting "Proud to Be a Caps Fan" banners, several struck a more optimistic note.

"It was something I didn't expect, I'm not going to lie," William Stilwell, who's frequently shown howling on the arena's massive scoreboard, said of the crowds. "No matter what, I just hope a lot of these people are here next fall. It's harder to get a drink, it's harder to move around, but I'll take that for a crazy building. Such is the price of team popularity."

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