For Capitals, Home Is Where Wins Are

So much attention has been paid to the Washington Capitals’ deficiencies on the road (not to mention the home struggles of the Caps’ fellow Verizon Center inhabitant) that no one seems to notice how successful the Caps have been at home this season.

Perhaps part of the reason for that is because such home success has become commonplace for the Caps and their fans:

  • 2010-11: Washington wins 25 games at Verizon Center, which is tied for the most in the Eastern Conference with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, but the Caps’ 58 home points were most in the East and second-most in the league (Vancouver – 59).
  • 2009-10: The Caps’ 30 wins at home were the most in the East and tied for the most in the NHL (Vancouver – 30), but their combined 66 points were most in the league.
  • 2008-09: Twenty-nine home wins were tied for the most in the East (Boston) and Washington’s 61 points were third-most in the league.

That kind of home dominance is no different this season as Washington leads the Eastern Conference with 19 home wins and 39 total home points, respectively.

These statistics, while considerably ignored this season, were not by Stadium Journey Magazine, a publication that reviews and ranks arenas and stadiums throughout professional and collegiate sports. Last week, Stadium Journey anointed Verizon Center as the top-ranked NHL arena, grading it on several components, including accessibility, the surrounding neighborhood and atmosphere, among others.

Of course, the Caps themselves are not taking in Chinatown before the game, but they do notice the crowd, which has given them one of the NHL’s biggest home-ice advantages. That was further evidenced Tuesday as the Caps defeated the Florida Panthers 4-0 in a pivotal game in front of a late-arriving, but raucous crowd of 18.506, Verizon Center’s 132nd consecutive sellout.

“I don’t know and I hope I don’t find out,” Karl Alzner said with a smile Tuesday when asked what makes Verizon Center a difficult place to play for opponents. “I don’t know what it’s like for them, but I would assume that it’s a little bit intimidating, starting from the anthem and when the fans get into it there and say what they have to say. When the JumboTron says ‘CHEER,’ everyone cheers, which I really like. People get into it right away. That’s all you need. You need to be pumped up. Sometimes, it’s tough to get up for games because it might not be a game that means a whole lot and you’re still playing hard, but that extra bit that you get from the fans is what you usually propels you. That’s why we’re usually having a good home record.”

While Alzner (who reiterated Tuesday that his favorite chant is the “1,2,3, it’s all your fault!” chant that fans scream towards the opposing  goaltender after Washington scores) does not know how it feels to be an opponent at Verizon Center, Roman Hamrlik does. Hamrlik was a member of the Montreal Canadiens team that defeated the Caps in seven games in the 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. The Canadiens may have left Verizon Center with a series-clinching Game 7 victory, but the fans did not make it easy.

“When I played with the Canadiens, it was always tough,” Hamrlik said Wednesday. “[The fans] are really into it. It’s a tough building to play in, especially in the playoffs.”

Verizon Center, however, was not always a tough place to play. The beginning of the new millennium saw the former MCI Center’s attendance hover around the bottom third of the NHL, including 25th in 2003-04 and 28th in 2005-06. Those two seasons coincided with the end of Jeff Halpern’s first tenure in Washington, where Caps fans were scarce and opposing fans filled up the half-full arena.

“Any arena around or stadium or sporting event, it’s always more exciting when it’s packed and there’s a buzz in the air,” Halpern said when asked to compare the atmosphere between his first and current stops in Washington.” It makes it easier to get up for those games.”

There is a almost symbiotic relationship between fans and their teams. In this instance, a successful product on the ice brings more fans into the arena, but more fans creates a better atmosphere which in turn can energize the team. The Caps find themselves in the midst of a tight division and playoff race and with 14 home games remaining, including another important divisional game against the Winnipeg Jets Thursday, they know that they have to use their home-ice advantage to their advantage.

“[Verizon Center] is a great arena to play in,” Halpern said. “It’s always an energetic crowd. As the visiting team, you feel like you’re playing against the team and playing against the crowd. You always feel comfortable on the ice at home and players seem to rise up off the energy of the crowd.”

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