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Capitals fans unleash the joy: ‘I want to high-five everyone in here right now’

The Washington Capitals shut out the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-0 on May 23 to advance to the Stanley Cup finals. (Video: Jon Gerberg, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Andre Chung/The Washington Post)
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When it was all over, it wasn’t exactly clear what the crowd at Capital One Arena was supposed to do. This was just a watch party, after all. There were no players here to applaud, no coaches on which the fans could heap their adoration. There was just the Jumbotron that had shown the Capitals’ 4-0 Game 7 win over the Lightning, and there were thousands of other Caps fans.

So they focused on their love on each other. They hugged and danced, cheered and cried.

“This? After so many years this felt impossible,” lifelong fan Jennifer Cornwell said during the postgame celebration. “This moment is why I came here tonight, why I watched it here. I want to high-five everyone in here right now.”

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Chuck Brown’s “Bustin’ Loose” blared over the sound system, and no one really went anywhere. They waited for the three stars and the postgame interviews, chanting the whole time.

Then they took to the streets, many heading to the National Portrait Gallery stairs that have become the celebration point for fans both local and foreign.

The mob on the stairs reveled and they chanted. About the team. For Ovi. And for Holtby. And then they chanted for their city.

“D.C.! D.C.! D.C.!” they screamed.

One young man started to climb a light pole and everyone watched, some crowding the base in case he fell. Patrick Christofaro, a 30-year-old fan, stood next to the pole at the base of the steps.

“Euphoria,” he said, looking up at the kid on the pole, the stairs and the sky.

Christofaro said that he watched the 1998 Stanley Cup but wasn’t old enough to really comprehend it. This was the first big victory he could really experience.

“I can finally celebrate,” he said, shaking with emotion. “For once in my damn life, I can celebrate.”

After about 30 minutes the crowd dispersed naturally, heading for the Metro or a bar or home — the ground left empty except for a thin covering of fliers that read, “Four Wins From Glory.”

The surge of people had been somewhat of a surprise. Entering into the evening, no one knew how many fans to expect at the arena watch party, considering the stakes and the Capitals’ playoff history. How many fans wanted to risk having their heart broken in public?

But nearly 11,000 showed up, according to a Capitals staffer. The earliest started lining up outside the arena around 5:30. By 7:15, the line to get in curled up F Street and stretched to the blockade on 7th. Fans filtered in to a soundtrack of cowbells and “Let’s go Caps!”

Anthony Felipe, a 19-year-old fan from Arlington, waited in line with a D.C. flag wrapped around him like a cape.

“We’ve been starved for something big here,” the Virginia Tech sophomore said. “This is without a doubt the biggest D.C. game of my lifetime.”

When Alex Ovechkin scored the game-opening (and eventual game-winning) goal just 62 seconds in, the crowd, still growing and full of No. 8 jerseys, erupted. Fans danced and hugged and banged their chairs.

The dream start triggered a hypersensitivity for the rest of the first period. Every hit, every save, every puck sent toward the net drew arena-wide gasps or cheers.

When Tom Wilson had to be restrained after his tussle with Braydon Coburn midway through the first, you’d have thought the Caps had scored again. When Wilson finally got his hands on the Lightning defenseman a few minutes later, the reaction was even louder. The slow-mo replay of Wilson’s best punch? That just felt like fan service.

“Everyone’s just excited to see some fight from them tonight,” Cornwell said during the first intermission. “I’ve been here for some Game 7s and it was so tense. It doesn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like that Monday, either. Maybe this is just different.”

Even as the second period began with some near misses for Tampa Bay, the mood never changed. The tension never came. Andre Burakovsky’s back-to-back goals rewarded the fans’ confidence. It was officially a party.

“Every goal that was scored people became more friendly,” Larry Houck, a Caps fan since 1974 said. “High fives and fist pumps, it was amazing.”

Houck and his wife said they grew closer with a group of girls sitting behind them and after the game they all went to the Greene Turtle together to celebrate. They didn’t even know their names, they just knew these girls were Caps fans too.

“It was the biggest party related to a sports event in 20 years,” Houck said.

“I’ve been in so many games in this building that have been quiet,” season-ticket holder Lorainne Coursol said. “To be here tonight, this was amazing in here.”

During a commercial break midway through the second, a Capitals staffer moved into the crowd for to conduct a Q&A. Justin Gibbons of McLean, seated in the first row, got the first question: “What’s been your favorite moment of the season so far?” Fueled by the 2-0 lead and the emotion of the arena, he grabbed the mic and ignored the question.

“D.C. sports fans,” he yelled, the new, de facto PA announcer. “When was the last time you felt like this?!”

Capital One Arena roared. It sounded like never.

Read more Capitals:

Svrluga: The Capitals, a franchise steeped in heartbreak, finally revel in a Game 7 victory

Game 7 swung on the unlikely stick of Andre Burakovsky

It’s not just you: The Caps really do play an absurd number of Game 7s

Capitals’ grinders are at the center of extraordinary playoff moments

Was Caps’ win the greatest in Capital One Arena history? It looked and sounded like it.

Svrluga: Signed for moments just like these, T.J. Oshie cashes in to keep Capitals alive

Why does Michael Wilbon think D.C. is a ‘minor league sports town’? How much time do you have?

Capitals’ Matt Niskanen is quick to take blame but deserves more of the credit