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Will the Washington Capitals bandwagon be a welcome wagon?

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The Washington Post's Tarik El-Bashir and John Feinstein talk about the elements the Caps need to make a run deep in to the playoffs including the goaltending situation and how the team stacks up against the Eastern Conference.

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By Mike Wise
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Newcomers and visitors to downtown Washington this week: Greetings. Welcome. As you know, a grand test of tolerance and understanding is happening, a historical first that -- let's be honest -- is much larger in scope than any podunk, 47-nation nuclear summit.

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No, this is about pride, tradition, loyalty, honor and gallons of overpriced domestic beer.

The folks with the toughest job this week -- those facing a greater personal challenge than Alex Ovechkin or Brooks Laich or José Theodore -- are Washington's loyal band of hockey die-hards. These longtime zealots, who begin waxing nostalgic at the mere mention of names "Langway" or "Bondra," are the only ones who will determine whether the District, Maryland and Virginia can finally coalesce over the next month into one throaty DMV roar:

Will old-school Caps fans finally make room for the bandwagon jumpers like me?

With the Stanley Cup-favorite Capitals opening the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs Thursday at Verizon Center, will they stop acting like no one can cheer for a hockey team unless they've read Toe Blake's private journals on power-play rotation? Will the most hard-core lot among them -- and I'm thinking this is less than 10 percent of the otherwise hospitable and gracious fan base -- be okay with giddy, excited people who will never have to endure the misery, pain and rebirth of a franchise they endured?

Will they be okay with people of unrefined hockey ilk, who even if they combined forces with would be still be outnumbered by several million in puck-mad Montreal?

Or will they depressingly continue their highbrow, tortured bond with other "true" Caps fans, the way Jackson Pollock scholars appreciate their subject so much that they consider a first-grade finger-painting class a total debasement of their idea of "real art."

As the Caps advance and more casual fans go ga-ga over Ovie, Greenie, Backie and the boys, can the happily miserable minority in Puckville put up with the uneducated majority, who uniformly think that No. 8 guy is really fast and super good?

Look, it's understood some fans are always going to be more bonkers than others. But this dynamic isn't everywhere in Washington.

You don't see a group of fanatics outside FedEx Field making sure everyone wearing a Chris Cooley jersey knows the proper way to attack the cover-two. You don't see seamheads at Nationals Park quizzing people who pass by about the infield fly rule and the forkball. (Actually, outside of Phillies fans, you hardly see anyone at Nationals Park.)

Memo to the Caps' high-art crowd: You don't need to own a Dale Hunter sweater to rock the red, so don't pretend it's something that requires a pedigree. Embrace your team's growing Q rating and the blue line-challenged among us who have come along for the ride. Go with it, despite your instincts to the contrary. Think of their popularity progression like this:

Yes, it's cool to see that indie band you saw at the Black Cat finally get a chance to play Merriweather. But that chance never happens unless other people came around to noticing what you loved a long time ago. You can privately feel you have more reason to revel in the band's success story, but you can't begrudge the fandom of the newcomers -- because without them, there would be no rocket-ship ascent.

Before anyone trumpets their vast hockey knowledge around here, the Caps' loyalists should remember that the most unifying moment in sports the past 50 years involved hockey. Men cried, strangers hugged, crowds sang -- and no one said to anyone else, "Yeah, but where were you when they got killed in that exhibition at Madison Square Garden?" And, as far as I can tell, no one accosted anyone wearing an Eruzione jersey and demanded they explain the neutral-zone trap.

For years, the hard-core Caps fans lamented that no one else cared about their team. Now people do. Welcome them. Help them. Heck, help me. I am trying to learn your language. I do not want to be deported for cavalierly saying, "It's just hockey," on my radio show earlier this season.

Your team is at least using Verizon Center in May. The Wizards? With all due respect, it's just basketball.

Change brings fear, of course. If the Caps win it all and everyone learns the meaning of "changing on the fly" and "circling the puck," the old Cap Centre denizens-- and the 22-year-olds pretending to be former Cap Centre denizens -- won't have one up on anyone anymore. You can't moan about second-class citizenship as fans in Washington the way Maryland fans used to moan about being neglected stepchildren before they won the men's basketball national title.

If their cries for more coverage by media outlets are met and the anchors and the reporters actually do their homework and learn everything about the game, they can't say: "He doesn't know hockey. I know hockey."

Where would their identities go? Who could they be angry at? What if they had to save their ire for someone who deserves it -- like Sidney Crosby?


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