For a few hours yesterday--maybe an entire day--Washington resembled a hockey town. Hundreds of fans donning Washington Capitals sweaters milled around F Street three hours before the home opener, playing interactive games, meeting new owner Ted Leonsis--all despite a persistent drizzle. Rock bands played on a stage. It felt like the playoffs.
As Leonsis wandered around, he couldn't help thinking his first opening night was already a success before the puck was even dropped. And it only got better as the sun went down. The Capitals slumbered through half the game, then had the arena rocking in the third period, capping a two-goal comeback to tie the Los Angeles Kings, 2-2, before 17,155 at MCI Center.
The Capitals yielded two goals early in the second period, and began what blossomed into an all-out attack. They pulled within a goal when tic-tac-toe passing set up Peter Bondra's power-play goal 4 minutes 8 seconds into the third period, the image of Leonsis celebrating filling up the scoreboard.
Fans, who booed the team through the second period, came to life. With 8:13 left in regulation, everyone saw Leonsis pump his fists again. Joe Sacco's point shot was knocked down, but Chris Simon got to the loose puck cutting between the faceoff circles and fired across his body, beating Stephane Fiset. Washington had a rare power-play opportunity in overtime, and pressed hard, but had to settle for a well-earned, and well-appreciated point in the standings.
A day that began early for Leonsis reached a delicious crescendo.
"They sometimes say a tie is like kissing your sister," Leonsis said. "I don't feel that way at all. I'll take the point. . . . And we got the best news of all at 10 a.m.--I tried to buy four tickets together in the first 25 rows online and we didn't have any. We said we weren't going to pad the house and we sold over 17,000 tickets."
Leonsis vows to give Capitals fans a hockey experience unlike anything they are used to. The team added new lights and pyrotechnics. A crisp video of the team heading out of the dressing room preceded player introductions, meshing with the team's new motto: Always Intense. Music by Marilyn Manson was blasting. New video clips kept spectators entertained through stoppages in play. New contests spruced up the intermissions.
Abe Pollin, who had owned the team since its inception until selling it to a group headed by Leonsis, watched all of it from a suite next to the new owner. General Manager George McPhee, serving a one-month suspension for an incident following a preseason game, watched from his couch, while "Free McPhee" signs dotted the arena. No one had much to cheer about in the first half of the game.
The Capitals played tight in the first period. Passes went awry. Offside infractions abounded. Goaltender Olaf Kolzig (33 saves) was again left to carry a heavy load. Kolzig was up to the high standard he set Friday night in Buffalo, diving to stop Luc Robitaille (the league's top goal scorer), denying Bryan Smolinski on a short-handed breakaway, frustrating Ziggy Palffy in the crease and stuffing Robitaille again late in the period. Coach Ron Wilson was fuming on the bench, urging his defense to knock the puck off the boards instead of consistently forcing dangerous passes.
"It seems like sometimes things are going bad, so we just give up the period," Wilson said.
Washington enjoyed the first three power plays of the game, but faltered each time and were pinned back for consecutive shifts, taking an inevitable penalty. The defense collapsed in front of Kolzig and Robitaille converted an easy rebound on the power play, 3:25 into the second period. About two minutes later, the Capitals blew their defensive coverage along the boards, allowing Marko Tuomainen to waltz in untouched from the point and beat Kolzig.
The Capitals headed to the second intermission to a Bronx cheer, when Wilson told them to quit the fancy stuff and make the simple play. They listened.
"I loved the way the guys battled back," Steve Konowalchuk said. "We simplified things and got back in the game. That was a fun game to play. The fans were into it. That's hockey."
Leonsis never stopped hollering for his boys. They helped their owner's perfect day become an even better night. "One guy came up to me three hours before the game and said it felt like the playoffs," Leonsis said. "I told him that's what we're trying to make every game feel like. This was a pretty good start."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Joe Reekie (lacerated finger) missed his second game. He's day-to-day. . . .
Alexei Tezikov, who received $1,000 from Leonsis for scoring the team's first game-winning goal, said he's using the money for a team party. "That is not my money," Tezikov said. "That money belongs to the whole team.". . . .
Rookie Jeff Halpern was sporting new black dress shoes last night, meeting with the team's approval after some veterans painted Halpern's shoes white Friday in Buffalo. Halpern, a Potomac native, played his first regular season NHL game in front of his friends and family Saturday.