By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 5, 2009
With nine weeks remaining in the regular season, a number of franchise firsts are within reach for the Washington Capitals. One of them, however, is coveted by Coach Bruce Boudreau more than others: the mark for home victories.
The Capitals are an Eastern Conference-leading 21-3-1 at Verizon Center. That puts them on pace for 34 wins at home, which would be four more than the 1985-86 team, and with wins over Los Angeles tonight and Florida on Saturday, they can match last season's total with 14 home games remaining.
Winning consistently on home ice and making Verizon Center an unpleasant environment for opponents have long been among Boudreau's priorities. In his postgame news conferences, he often makes mention of an arena's "atmosphere" and how it played on the Capitals' emotions -- and ultimately affected the outcome of the game. After Tuesday's 5-2 win in front of a sparse crowd in New Jersey, for example, Boudreau said the subdued mood at Prudential Center negatively affected both teams but that it mostly dragged down the Devils.
"It was a dead building," he said. "When we played Florida [a 5-3 loss at Verizon Center on Dec. 2] it was very similar. It's tough."
"Dead" might be the last word anyone would use these days to describe the Capitals' rink, which is gaining a reputation around the league as one of the loudest and most intimidating arenas in the NHL. The Capitals have hosted 14 capacity crowds this season -- six more than all of last season -- and 10 in the past 11 games.
"When you have 17,000 or 18,000 people behind you, it's a great feeling," Boudreau said. "It motivates our players, but it's not something people who have been here longer than two years are accustomed to."
Since Boudreau blended his up-tempo brand of hockey with Washington's core of established and emerging stars, a full house has become the norm rather than the exception it had been in previous seasons. The average attendance is 17,997, up 28.4 percent from this time last year and the highest through 25 games in team history. The record for home sellouts is 23, which was set in 1988-89 and then equaled in 1995-96. This year's team is on pace to make it a three-way tie.
"If there's no fans, there's not that energy," said Boudreau, who has a 42-11-4 record at home. "And if you're not winning, there's no fans. You can't have one without the other."
The Capitals are also poised to set the record for most points and tie the record for fewest losses at home. They're on pace for 70.5 home points (which would eclipse the 62 points the 1985-86 and 1999-2000 squads posted) and for five defeats (the 1999-2000 team lost just five times.)
There are many reasons for the Capitals' success at home other than fan support. One of the biggest, though not an obvious one, is the proximity of the team's Arlington practice facility to most of the players' homes, Boudreau said. Many of the Capitals live within walking distance of Kettler Capitals Iceplex, allowing them to get more rest before and after practices and morning skates, which is critical during the grind of an 82-game regular season.
"Getting home cooking and sleeping in your own bed the night before games helps, obviously," Boudreau said. "But it also really helps when you only have to make one commute to Verizon Center on game days."
And then there's Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's reigning MVP and leading goal scorer. He has 23 goals in the 24 home games in which he has played. Part of that, Boudreau said, has to do with the home team getting the last line change, which allows him to match his star winger against weaker defensive units. Ovechkin, who has five goals in the past two home games, is on pace for more than 38 at home this season, which would be six more than the franchise record he set last season.
Boudreau said he notices a slightly more energized Ovechkin at home.
"Alex is a very emotional guy, and he knows the fans are behind him 100 percent," Boudreau said. "So when the fans get into it, Alex's energy level goes up. That's where those gaudy numbers come from."
No discussion of the Capitals' newfound home ice advantage, though, is complete without an acknowledgment of the ear-splitting decibel level from the sea of red-clad fans after goals.
"I haven't been in another building where you can't hear yourself think," Boudreau said. "And here you can't. I don't know if the acoustics are so good, but it's a factor."
Capitals Note: With several players suffering from various minor ailments and illnesses, Boudreau made the late decision to call off yesterday's practice.