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In D.C.’s biggest sports moment in years, the Capitals delivered

The Capitals took a 2-1 lead in the Stanley Cup Final and gave their fans something new and amazing.

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON — More than an hour before the puck dropped on Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, and about four hours before the Capitals took their first series lead ever in this round, a 59-year-old who’d spent $2,250 for three seats in the highest row of Capital One Arena was thinking about what felt different this year.

“It’s weird to come to a game in shorts,” said Scott Zimmerman, who lives in Frederick, Md., and has been showing up at Capitals games since 1985. “I’ve never had to see hockey in June before.”

Saturday night was unlike anything D.C.’s sports teams have created in this era. The big thing wasn’t that the people were loud, though the 18,506 fans who attended were really loud. It wasn’t that they were more hopped up than most fanbases, even though I’ve never seen any sporting venue so full during pregame warmups as this one was on Saturday. And it wasn’t that Pat Sajak introduced the starting lineups. It was too loud to even hear him.

What happened in D.C. on Saturday was the most special of sports things: a night when everyone knew they were watching something for the first time.

Two teams play in the Cup Final every year, but what you don’t get every year is a team in the Cup Final that a) hasn’t been there in 20 years, b) has never won the Cup, c) has spent most of the last decade flaming out early in the playoffs despite having the world’s best goal-scorer and some amazing regular seasons, and d) plays in D.C., one of the most tortured sports towns in the world. The Capitals’ 3-1 domination of the first-year expansion Vegas Golden Knights didn’t lock up a Cup, but it was a breakthrough all the same.

The team’s first home Cup Final win ever was also D.C.’s first championship-round home win since the Bullets beat the Sonics in Game 1 of the 1979 NBA Finals. That discounts some neutral-site Super Bowls way back when, but an atmosphere like this one hadn’t happened. D.C. hadn’t gotten to celebrate one of its teams being in the driver’s seat quite like now.

“We’ve had a lot of moments,” coach Barry Trotz said a few minutes after the game ended. “Not as many good ones as we’d like. But at the same time, I think everybody recognizes that if you do the right things and you keep sort of pounding the rock, there’s a lot of pride in our dressing room. There’s a lot of pride in this D.C. area. And in the past failures, you would feel a lot of anxiety even before you started the playoffs. I think we’ve gotten past that as a group. We’ve gotten past that hopefully as a community. And hopefully we can continue on and hopefully bring something here. I think it’ll galvanize all the city and all the other sports franchises in this area, because there’s some good ones.”

In past years, even in past months, a sense of doom would’ve washed over the building when Braden Holtby misplayed a puck behind his net and handed Vegas a freebie goal that cut Washington’s lead to 2-1 in the third period. It didn’t seem to happen on Saturday. The crowd didn’t quiet down, and more importantly, the Capitals didn’t back down. They kept up pressure and gained that goal back with an insurance marker 10 minutes later.

There’s a sense of shared salvation here, between players and fans.

People who root for Washington teams have had it rough in this realm, but so have the people who play for this Washington team. The longest-standing members of the Capitals’ core, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, have gone through spring disappointment after spring disappointment. It’s clear every time something goes right for the Capitals that this means as much to them as the people watching them.

“These fans have been waiting a long time,” Backstrom said. “We players are nothing without these fans. It was nice to give us and the fans a first win here at home.”

Ovechkin sounds like a man trying not to get too caught up.

“The atmosphere was great. The city’s excited. The fans excited,” he said. “But again, it’s only two. We just have to move forward and don’t think about it too much.”

If the players have to be tempered, the fans don’t. D.C. is loving this.

There’s a point to which no local team could ever really take over the city. Washington is loaded with transplants, and most of the Capitals’ fanbase is located in surrounding Maryland and Northern Virginia. The team’s Chinatown arena blends into the city like a shopping mall, and the people here aren’t monolithic about the sports or teams they enjoy.

But something’s not the same now. Again, there’s some obvious stuff. It was fun that Sting and Shaggy drew a few thousand people to the steps of a Smithsonian for a pregame concert, but there’s nothing remarkable about a bunch of D.C. people going to a free concert. (Next we’ll learn that a bunch of them signed up for an intramural kickball league or decided to look at some cherry blossoms in May.) It wasn’t that they turned out in droves to drink, though a bartender told me around 12:30 a.m. that hockey fans “blitzkrieged us.”

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-Vegas Golden Knights at Washington Capitals Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

The wildest thing about this Capitals run isn’t that people are showing up and being excited. That’s what happens when teams make deep playoff runs. What’s so notable here is that the Capitals are teaching sports fans in their city to be excited and not live in dread.

Scott Zimmerman, the guy who paid $750 a pop for the seats in the highest row of the arena, brought his 81-year-old mom and his daughter, a 21-year-old named Kate who goes to college in Pennsylvania. In the weeks since the Capitals beat their longtime nemesis Penguins in the second round, Kate’s gotten to act differently than ever before.

“I would get taunted when we’d lose to Pittsburgh, and I’d have to sit there and take it,” she said while she waited for warmups to start. “This year, it was my year to finally give it back a little bit. And I’m very proud to be a Caps fan right now.”

And to get to show up to hockey games in shorts.