Fans celebrate during a viewing party at Capital One Arena on Wednesday night. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The last time the Capitals played in the Stanley Cup finals, 20 years ago this spring, William Stilwell was in the crowd, like he almost always is. The man known as “Goat,” perhaps the team’s most recognizable fan, remembers the scene vividly. “It was just a sea of red,” Stilwell said.

Problem is, the Capitals wore blue, black and bronze in 1998. Their opponents, the Detroit Red Wings, were the ones in red, and the visiting fans seemed to fill half the seats in Washington’s arena.

“An unfortunate atmosphere,” Stilwell called it.

In the two decades that divide the Caps’ only appearances in the Stanley Cup finals, the culture inside that arena — and across the region — has transformed. A city with a reputation for loving a front-runner seems to have morphed into a committed hockey town. A franchise whose viability was once questioned became a marquee attraction, with a deeper fan base and more marketable stars. And with the Capitals set to face the Vegas Golden Knights in the finals starting next week, the attendant enthusiasm is far louder, and broader, than it was 20 years ago.

How different was 1998? Jane Ellis attended a Caps game against Buffalo in the Eastern Conference finals that spring. Her seat had a face value of $75. The team gave it to her for free, she recalled.

“They had to give away those tickets because people weren’t going,” she said this week.

The 1998 squad that was swept by the Red Wings is a far cry from the one Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby will lead into Monday’s Game 1, just as the energetic community that has sprouted around the team is noticeably different than what existed in Clinton-era Washington.

Wednesday night, as the Caps were wrapping up their conference title in Tampa, an estimated 11,000 fans converged 900 miles away to watch that moment together in downtown D.C. At the same time, NBC Sports Network’s broadcast was seen in 315,000 Washington-area homes, believed to be the most in franchise history.

Al Koken, the veteran Washington broadcaster, was doing the pregame show for NBC Sports Washington outside Capital One Arena, as fans poured out of the Metro and climbed out of Ubers. When his broadcast ended and he turned around to look down the street, Koken was shocked. “We were an hour and 15 minutes away from faceoff,” he said, “and as far as I could see, it was a sea of red.”

Many of those fans had been reticent just last month, after an erratic regular season and years of playoff letdowns. But by Wednesday night, fans filled more than half of Capital One Arena, glued to the action on the video board before spilling out onto the streets to celebrate.

“I just kept shaking my head and smiling,” Koken said. “It really felt like finally you had a true hockey environment, as opposed to a lot of sports fans who were just happy for the home team. What I saw [Wednesday] night said to me that a great fan base has turned into something spectacular.”

Such a scene was unimaginable 20 years ago. That team had just relocated to Chinatown from Landover. Many fans from the Washington suburbs decided not to follow the franchise downtown. The team was at once trying to retain its old fans and struggling to attract new ones.

“Twenty years ago when we were there, we had to build something,” recalled Joe Juneau, who played center for the Caps from 1993 to 1999. “We were part of that. … It was a Redskins town, it was Wizards. We did fill out the building in the playoffs, but it was never the case in regular season. The old building was even worse. Sometimes there was never anyone in the stands unless we played Philly or New York. As a player it was really frustrating.”

Capitals fans in D.C. watch Game 7 on Wednesday night. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

The 1998 team wasn’t supposed to be a Stanley Cup contender, and that season the franchise sold only 6,668 season tickets — more than 4,000 fewer than the league average at the time. The first two home games of those playoffs weren’t sellouts. The Caps distributed free tickets to simply fill the seats through the conference finals. They sold batches to travel agencies in the opposing teams’ cities, and while the early playoff rounds against Boston and Buffalo featured plenty of Bruins and Sabres jerseys, it was nothing like when the Red Wings brought a two-game lead to town for Games 3 and 4 of the finals.

“It was kind of jarring to see,” recalled Koken.

Reporters in the press box made note of the red-clad contingent of out-of-town fans, who might not have matched the Caps in numbers but eventually overwhelmed them in volume as their team swept the series.

“There were a lot of the real die-hard Caps fans who might’ve been bummed the team finally got to its first finals and the other team was so noticeably represented. You won’t see anything like that this time,” said ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, who covered that series for The Post. “Things are different there. … I certainly didn’t see that it would become what it is now. And having that growth be so organic is pretty cool.”

News reports at the time suggested that fans could still purchase single-game tickets the day the Caps hosted their first-ever Stanley Cup finals game, and scalpers were hawking tickets outside the arena for as low as $150. Twenty years later, the Capitals have posted 413 consecutive sellouts. Tickets for next week’s games, both in Las Vegas and Washington, started at around $900 on the secondary market on Thursday.

One Caps fan created a GoFundMe page asking for donations to help buy tickets. “Stanley cup tickets are insanely expensive,” Annie Chaale, of Sterling, wrote, “and I can not afford even half of one.” Another fan jokingly offered to trade his kidney for a ticket. “I honestly have no idea what the going rate for a kidney would be,” Kelvin Spriggs said.

Ron Weber, the team’s radio voice from 1974 to 1997, estimates that he’s watched more Caps game than anyone on the planet. And while he’s always been impressed with the core group of ardent supporters, he describes a steady growth that only accelerated in recent years.

“Starting with Ovechkin, I’d say, I had the feeling that there are suddenly as many Caps fans as Redskins, as Nationals, as Wizards — especially in the suburbs,” he said. “They permeate the fabric of Washington sports like never before. You can’t walk too far down the block without bumping into a Caps fan.”

Most point to Ovechkin’s popularity and the team’s perennial success — 10 playoff appearances in 11 seasons — for helping raise the ceiling and grow the fan base. In Ovechkin’s early days, the team averaged fewer than 14,000 fans a night — their lowest average since the early 1980s.

“There were a number of nights you could hear me echoing off the walls,” said Wes Johnson, the team’s longtime public address announcer. “It was only really the die-hards who were there.”

Ovechkin’s highlight-reel performances drew in more casual fans and grew the base of ardent ones. More outlets for their fandom emerged. Unlike 20 years ago, the buzz around the team feels more palpable because the conversation is continuous, with fans discussing the team at all hours on Twitter or active fan sites.

“Everybody’s informed, more interconnected,” said Jon Press, who runs the popular Caps site Japers’ Rink. “In a lot of ways, the community has grown in ways that it just couldn’t in 1998.”

And so fan interest isn’t the only thing that’s spiked. Ellis has been attending games with her family for more than a quarter-century. She’d love to see the Caps take on the Golden Knights in person. But this is a market nearly unrecognizable from what it was in 1998.

“Right now, my son wants to go, but I’m thinking there’s no way,” she said. “These tickets are $1,000. I mean, they were free before. Times change, I guess.”

Scott Allen contributed to this report.

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