Washington — Jimmy Patterson was a fresh-faced 22-year-old in the stands at the old Capital Centre in October 1974 when the expansion Washington Capitals won their first NHL game.
As he was leaving, an elderly man from Brooklyn told Patterson he’d always get to say he saw the Capitals’ first win. The man smiled and added, “You can’t lose ’em all.”
Forty-plus years, more than 3,000 games and 27 unsuccessful playoff runs later, Patterson and legions of longtime Capitals fans finally have a reason to believe that. Many who watched Wednesday night at an arena watch party far from Game 7 in Tampa Bay took to the steps of the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the Capitals’ first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1998. Game 1 in Las Vegas against the Golden Knights is Monday night.
“It’s been really gratifying,” said Patterson, now 65. “It feels a lot different, and it’s a weird feeling.”
Filling the area, fans chanted, “We want the Cup,” “We want Vegas” and “DC! DC!” in an outpouring of joy decades and crushing losses in the making. Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals are the first Washington team in the major four professional sports leagues to reach the final in a generation. To get this far, they had to not only outlast the Lightning but survive longtime playoff nemesis Pittsburgh, which has won the last two championships.
“It’s been 20 long, dry years and we are back,” Capitals public address announcer Wes Johnson said. “This is catharsis. Once we beat the Penguins, then you could see that the fan base was like, ‘Let’s just play hockey.’ As John Walton said, it’s OK to believe. It’s not just OK to believe. Just believe.”
Among markets with teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, only the Twin Cities in Minnesota has a longer championship drought going than Washington. The NFL team won its third Super Bowl title in January 1992 and it’s been mostly grim since then. None of the NFL team, Wizards, Nationals and Capitals even reached a league semifinal from 1998 until this spring.
In that same time, Boston’s teams have made 25 league semifinal appearances and won 10 titles. Maybe success is contagious.
“Last year all of those (other Washington) teams made the playoffs and then it was like, hey we got to do the same too, and we dropped the ball,” Redskins running back Chris Thompson said. “If you see your D.C. teams succeeding and the Capitals now (in) the finals and stuff like that, it’s a little bit of motivation.”
The Capitals got over the hump in their 10th playoff appearance after early exits marred by sudden-death overtime winners, a hot goaltender named Jaroslav Halak, the New York Rangers and — of course — the Penguins.
“It’s just been one nightmare after another,” said Anthony Beverina, who has had season tickets in section 417 since 1997-98. “And it makes you wonder if there’s some inherit either cosmic conspiracy or a core character issue in the core guys.”
The nightmare has slowly felt like a dream on this playoff run, which was unexpected following an offseason of salary-cap casualties in the wake of another crushing second-round loss to Pittsburgh.
San Jose signed pending free agent forward Evander Kane to a seven-year contract Thursday that keeps the high-scoring winger off the open market and part of the Sharks’ long-term future.
... The Colorado Avalanche have brought back forward Gabriel Bourque on a one-year deal.
STANLEY CUP FINALS
Washington vs. Vegas
Monday: at Vegas, 8 p.m. (NBC)
Wednesday: at Vegas, 8 p.m. (NBCSN)
Saturday, June 2: at Washington, 8 p.m. (NBCSN)
Monday, June 4: at Washington, 8 p.m. (NBC)
x-Thursday: at Vegas, 8 p.m. (NBC)
x-Sunday, June 10: at Washington, 8 p.m. (NBC)
x-Wednesday, June 13: at Vegas, 8 p.m. (NBC)