What awaits Saturday night at Capital One Arena fits somewhere in the pantheon of Washington sports events, and it isn’t even a particularly long list. This is just Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals, and the Washington Capitals can’t (yet) raise any sort of trophy on home ice. It’s one game apiece with the Vegas Golden Knights. We’re just getting started.
But as we wait for the puck to drop, it’s worth thinking about how rare this is around here because that helps define how we experience it. The drought of athletic success in Washington — decades long, and more — helps shape the vibe around this series. There’s a reason tickets on the secondary market were going for between $875 and $2,200 for one game Friday morning.
There’s a generation here that knows nothing about playing for a championship. There’s a generation before it that remembers but has waited years and died deaths to get another chance. That generation — people in their late 30s and 40s — has a sports fandom built on the backs of Redskins Super Bowl victories. (What a concept.) They would just love to tell their own kids: “See? See? It’s possible.”
Which all adds weight to what will go down at Capital One Arena on Saturday and Monday nights. That rink on F Street last hosted a game of this magnitude in 1998, when it was still in its first season of existence. And so, if we’re searching for recent examples with which to compare the upcoming Game 3, start there because it’s the last time one of Washington’s four major sports franchises played for a title. (I know, I know. Apologies to the Kastles. And, of course, to D.C. United.)
But that Stanley Cup finals series had a different feel and flow. First, the opponent was the Detroit Red Wings. The year before facing those Capitals in the finals, the Wings won the Cup. The year before facing these Capitals in the finals, the Golden Knights didn’t exist. Detroit is a member of the Original Six. Vegas is a member of the Original . . . Thirty-One?
When the Caps arrived home for Game 3 in 1998, they were coming off an overtime loss and effectively had whiffed on their only chance to make a dent in the series. Detroit won both games here and hoisted the Cup in Chinatown.
It’s also important to remember what that Capitals team was: a third-place finisher in its own division that was the fourth seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs — and, because of upsets elsewhere, never had to face a higher-seeded team. Good team, good players, Dale Hunter and Olie Kolzig and the rest. But it missed the playoffs the year before and the year after. It’s so different from the steady build — not to mention the rip-your-heart-out moments — that Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals have provided over the past decade.
It’s also a north-and-south different hockey town. In 1997-98, the Capitals averaged 15,275 fans at what was then called MCI Center. That dipped to 13,905 in 2005-06, Ovechkin’s rookie year. When the Capitals opened these finals in Las Vegas, more than 12,000 fans filed into Capital One Arena to watch the games on television .
So all that context makes Saturday night the biggest hockey game in District history. And it’s not really close. Until Monday.
But what else might be up there? The buzziest recent Redskins game probably would have come the last week of the 2012 season, when a fellow named Robert Griffin III was an ascendant quarterback and they hosted Dallas for the NFC East title. The next week, Griffin blew out his knee, the franchise unraveled again, and the Redskins have played one postseason game since.
Washington has those three Super Bowls, but they were won in Pasadena, Calif., San Diego and Minneapolis. Each came after a home NFC championship game victory, and RFK Stadium hosted five of those between 1972 (26-3 over Dallas) and 1992 (41-10 over Detroit). The stands shook and swayed. The football team was a model franchise. For a time, it felt as if winning was permanent, ingrained.
And yet what followed is an athletic wasteland. Baseball left after the 1971 season and didn’t return for 34 years. I feel as if I’m in a minority who would include the night of April 14, 2005, among the most important — and emotional — in Washington sporting history. That’s when President George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch, when Vinny Castilla nearly hit for the cycle, when Livan Hernandez took a shutout into the ninth and the Nationals beat Arizona, 5-3 — baseball’s return.
The Nationals have gone on to host truly meaningful games, some of them epic. But Jayson Werth’s walk-off homer in the ninth against St. Louis came in the fourth game of the 2012 division series, and the Nationals went on to lose Game 5. (We’ll spare you the details. )
The twisting and turning losses in other win-and-advance games at Nationals Park — Game 5 in 2016 against the Dodgers, Game 5 in 2017 against the Cubs — also came in the first round of the playoffs. They are memorable. Compare them to these two hockey games in the final round, and they’re chump change.
Same with the Wizards. As the Bullets, the 1978 team won the seventh game of the NBA Finals — in Seattle. The following year, the same two teams met again. Washington won the opener at home — and then lost four straight. Yes, Gilbert Arenas’s Wizards tangled with LeBron. Sure, John Wall jumped to the top of the scorer’s table after beating the Celtics. But since those two matchups with Seattle four decades ago, the franchise hasn’t so much as advanced to the conference finals.
You could make an argument for the 1997 MLS Cup at RFK Stadium, hosted and won by D.C. United. That was when the local soccer team could argue it was a bigger deal than the local hockey team.
Tough to argue now. And now we have this.
“I’m excited,” Ovechkin said Friday. “I think everybody in Washington excited.”
They should be. What’s about to take place in Washington just doesn’t take place in Washington very often. Pay attention, because your Earl McNeely-driving-home-Muddy Ruel moment awaits.
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