(photo by Clyde Caplan)
It’s no secret that the life of a D.C. sports fans isn’t exactly filled with lollipops and rainbows.
The Nationals have yet to qualify for the postseason since relocating from Montreal, the Wizards have been a doormat for as long as anyone can remember and the Redskins have hosted just one playoff game since moving into FedEx Field back in ’97.
Basically, locals fans have been forced to put all of their proverbial eggs in the Capitals’ basket when it comes to rooting for a professional franchise that is even remotely capable of accomplishing noteworthy.
Fortunately for Washington, the Caps were able to win on the road — taking three games from the Bruins in Boston. Otherwise, this series would have gone very differently because the Capitals have struggled to win consistently at home in the playoffs.
Since Alex Ovechkin and friends came into our lives, hockey has been center stage in our nation’s capital — with Caps games routinely selling out at the Verizon Center as a sea of red-clad fans pack the stands and do their best to give Washington a true home-ice advantage.
And their efforts have not gone unnoticed, as the Capitals have gone 133-48-27 at home during the last five regular seasons.
But for as good as the Caps have been during the regular season at the Phone Booth, their regular-season success has carried over into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In case you didn’t realize it, the Caps are just 11-13 at the Verizon Center during the last five postseasons.
Read that sentence one more time and let it truly sink in. The Capitals have won just 11 out of 24 home games in recent history.
Sure, the “Rock the Red” era has produced countless sellout crowds from a rowdy and passionate fanbase, but unfortunately, it simply hasn’t translated to wins.
Just last series, the Capitals needed to win three games in Boston to eliminate the Bruins. That’s what happens when you lose two out of three in Washington.
How does a team that wins 64 percent of their home games during the regular season suddenly have such a difficult time once the playoffs roll around?
I decided to take this question to the players themselves in hopes of 1.) making them aware of just how few wins the hometown fans have been able to enjoy in person recently and 2.) seeing if they could come up with a reason for the lack of success locally.
Since defenseman Karl Alzner and I have had a debate or two over some of the chants and gimmicks a small faction of the team’s fanbase enjoys, I figured he was the ideal person to start with.
Before we really get going, what is it about the “it’s all your fault” chant and all of that other shtick that you enjoy? You know I’m not a fan of it, but you’ve been a vocal supporter since day one.
“I think it makes it a really fun atmosphere to play in,” Alzner said. “I’ve found that if you’re going into a rink that’s got those types of things going on, it really does feel like the crowd, the team and the city are all united. To me, it’s something really special. It’s hard to get an entire group of people to start saying chants like that, so for me, it’s just fun. When I saw our fans do that for the first time, it was amazing. It was one of the coolest things I’d seen.”
Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of the chants, there’s no questioning how passionate Caps fans can be during a playoff game. Hearing how loud the building got when Brooks Laich scored his breakaway goal against the Bruins in the opening round or when Sergei Fedorov scored the series-clinching goal against the Rangers a few years back, there’s no denying how fired up the local fanbase can get. How much of an impact does it have on players when the building erupts like that?
“A lot. Sometimes I think the fans don’t understand how much they can help or hurt the team,” said Alzner. “When they’re cheering that loud, it gets us so fired up and emotions are so high and it definitely affects the other team too. But at the same time, when they start booing us because the powerplay isn’t going or something, that hurts us too. Guys gets shaky and we get nervous trying to make plays and stuff. The crowd can really affect how we play out there.”
With the Capitals going just 11-13 at home over the last five postseasons, what do you guys have to do to make the Verizon Center more of a hostile environment for opposing teams?
“When it comes to the playoffs, I think the record isn’t as good because the teams are all so evenly matched,” he said. “Teams in the playoffs are usually good on home ice and on the road as well. For us though, we just need to come out hard every single night. When you do that, it can really set the other team back. Sometimes we struggle and don’t start a game out very well.”
Since we had just referenced Laich’s beautiful first-round tally, I headed over to his stall next.
“It’s awesome,” Laich said of playing in front of sold-out crowd every night. “They make it a very fun place for us to play and they make it very difficult for the opposition to play. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — I think we have the best fans in the league and the best environment to play a hockey game in.”
What’s it like for the players when the places really goes nuts like, for example, when you scored your breakaway goal against Boston?
“It gets really loud,” Laich said. “Back in Game 4, there was a penalty kill or something late in the game and it was so loud in there that my ears started to feel it. There was a little bit of pain from all of the noise. It’s awesome. It’s such a great atmosphere to play in.”
With that in mind, I asked Laich about the team’s 11-13 postseason record at home and what they need to do in order to truly take advantage of that environment.
“I don’t know,” he said. “In the playoffs it’s tough to win anywhere — either on the road or at home. Look at Round 1. Two Game 7s were won on the road. We feel like playing in a building like ours is an advantage, but maybe it works the other way too. Maybe it unites the other team and creates an ‘us against them’ mindset because everyone in the building hates you. Maybe when you’ve got 19,000 fans all united in hating you, it can bring a team together.”
Sadly, after talking it over with some of the players, there is no easy answer. They all clearly love the atmosphere that Caps fans have created on game days and would love nothing more than to reward that passion and intensity with postseason victories. But that task is easier said than done when you’re taking on the best the NHL has to offer.
Moving forward, the Caps are either going to have to petition the league to allow them to play their home games at TD Garden in Boston or they’re going to have to step up their game at the Verizon Center.
Personally, I’d rather see the Capitals continue to play within driving distance of my house, so here’s hoping they get their act together and start truly taking advantage of the electric atmosphere that their fanbase provides each and every time they take the ice.
May 2, 2012 at 7:52 am
I still say, as I said before, it is because of the bush-league cheers any time the announcer says anything. I’m talking to you “Whocarers” and “Itsallyourfaulters.” It is bush-league cheers that makes the team play like bushleagers at home.
May 2, 2012 at 8:41 am
Those chants weren’t around for the longest time and the team did no better at home then. So not buying it.
May 2, 2012 at 8:42 am
Sorry, I meant those chants weren’t always around and the team struggled at home anyway.
May 2, 2012 at 8:54 am
Busch league? Really? It’s good enough for Ivy schools, good enough for a lot of college level teams. Hell – the chants at Hershey are more bare about thier feelings, and i love it. A college atmosphere is AWESOME to play in.
This is how a fan base grows. its organic, if enough people like a chant, it grows..(See: We are louder) it might change over the years (see: Red, O(vi)) but unless the jumbotron pushed it on us… it’ll keep growing. just look at how in game 5 last year, everyone was for we are louder.. but when the tron in the 3rd tried “can you hear us” it only went on as long as the break in play.
May 2, 2012 at 8:54 am
OK…so being hungover I can’t handle this task, but what is the Caps home record in the regular season vs all the teams that made the playoffs? Is it in the .500 level like our home playoff games or no? I guess playing the Southeast every year does pad our home stats.
Great read, Murf. Really enjoyed this one.
May 2, 2012 at 8:56 am
It would be disingenuous of me to say I don’t care how our fans are perceived around the league. Anyone can have a subjective opinion about the atmosphere at Verizon Center.
The “WHO CARES” yell irks me because I always care who scored on the Caps. As with throwing a hat on the ice for a shootout goal in the regular season, it belies a level of ignorance among the crowd which is embarrassing.
The count-up and “ALL YOUR FAULT” doesn’t bother me, because it’s at least a positive effort by the fans.
I don’t see any rational reason why the type of cheers would affect the team’s play. Being loud and being positive help. Booing hurts. I get that. Calling these cheers “bush-league” doesn’t engender intelligent discussion. How does one qualify that remark? What does “bush-league” mean? And how could a positive cheer directed at the home team hurt their play?
May 2, 2012 at 9:04 am
Last time I checked, this was America. Feel free to cheer what you want. Doesn’t mean I won’t make fun of the bush-leagueness of them.
And if you have ever read any comments I have made on this site, I never “engender intelligent discussion.”
May 2, 2012 at 9:59 am
Damn, I woke up this morning, got some starbucks and started reading this blog. I was going through the comments and just about spit some coffee out. Then I thought, “Thank god, this is expensive coffee to spit out.” Now I feel bad for the guy who must have spilled his Pretentious Fuck Coffee while he was typing. Point of fact is, the cheers are in the stadium. Whether we like them or not, they will probably stay. I for one, dont understand the “Who cares” chant. It seems slightly counterintuitive. Did the fans yell that when Boston beat us at home, or did they just leave the stadium.
I kind of care when the other team scores, but hey, I am old school.
May 2, 2012 at 10:04 am
I’m too lazy and/or stupid to do the math, but I’d be willing to bet that the winning precentage of every single playoff home game in the nhl over the past decade is hovering around the 500 mark also…
its the game nowadays.
May 2, 2012 at 10:08 am
I can’t really speak for the playoff games in previous years, but looking at the first round home games against Boston I think one of the problems at home is keeping structured in this very disciplined system that Hunter has setup for the team.
It seemed to me that both home games lost in the Boston series at home, the team had a tendency at times to get away from the tight defensive game that they needed to play against Boston possibly because of the exitement of the Home crowd.
It is easier to stay disciplined when the crowd is against you, but more difficult when the crowd is cheering for you because you want to score for the home fans. This led to some uncharacteristic turnovers or odd-man breaks for the other team, which is in contradiction to the system’s emphasis on limiting these opportunities for the opponents.
May 2, 2012 at 10:09 am
Why don’t we all chant “HEXTALL” at everyone no matter who it is.
Oh wait, most Caps fans nowadays have no idea who that is. The same fans who chant “WHO CARES?” The same people who have no idea we yelled at Kevin Hatcher the same way we get angry at Green these days.
Chants should be fun, not embarrassing.
May 2, 2012 at 10:12 am
and since luck of the match-up is a factor in playoffs: (if you don’t believe me take a look at the 2009 playoffs and realize Pit should have sent Car flowers.)
and the capitals are 5-2 against the New York Rangers in those years at verizon center…
May 5, 2012 at 11:35 am
I would say that the “It’s all your fault chant” is more egregious considering that it is never just the goalies fault. The “who cares” was started in section 419 and not as a negative connotation but more of a “they scored, who cares who it was” type attitude. Obviously, it has taken more of a life of it’s own. I personally am not to keen on the “OHHHH” and “RED” during the anthem. I used to see it as severely, disrespectful. I have changed my tume a bit in talking to Caleb Green and Bob MacDonald, not only do they not have a problem with it, they embrace it. Combine that with their status as active duty military and I have softened my stance.