Rori Kochman remembers the last time the Washington Capitals made the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998. The games themselves were unremarkable, as the Detroit Red Wings swept the series. The highlight, the Potomac resident said, had nothing to do with hockey.
“I was pregnant with my first child, and during the last game I started going into labor,” she said. Year-after-year, Kochman and her fellow Capitals fans have winced at the frowns on the faces of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and the rest of the team as they exit the playoffs in the first or second round. The experience of being a lifelong Capitals fan, she said, is “heart-wrenching.”
“Every year it’s the same,” she said. “It’s like [the movie] ‘Groundhog Day.’ Your expectations and hopes get too high. After last year I was like… I can’t believe this.”
This year is different. The Capitals are back in the finals, and fans like Kochman say the era of the team’s playoff frustrations are over.
“I’m so happy for Ovie [Ovechkin] and Backstrom and all these guys,” Kochman said. “This team just felt different. Lots of the younger guys have come up big. You can just see the camaraderie.”
At the other end of the ice are the Vegas Golden Knights, an expansion team that surpassed the predictions of sports analysts by winning their division and advancing to the finals. The Knights won the first game of the series Monday night 6 to 4.
Kochman now has two children, ages 18 and 19, who both have played youth hockey and share their mother’s support for the team. Her parents are fans, as is her sister, who lives in Wisconsin — a state with no NHL team. Her husband, Richard, is a Philadelphia Flyers fan, but still attends Capitals games with the rest of the family.
Kochman said she gets so stressed during close games, and has a hard time watching them on TV because of the team’s past disappointments, which include losses to the Penguins the last two years. But Evgeny Kuznetsov’s overtime goal against Pittsburgh in this year’s playoffs was a moment she won’t forget.
“When we beat the Penguins, I think you could’ve heard me scream in Frederick,” she said.
Guy Wassertzug said he too knows the trauma of being a Capitals fan. Wassertzug, a Potomac resident an a Capitals season ticket holder for 18 years, skipped game 6 in the team’s last series against Tampa Bay out of fear the Caps would lose and be eliminated from the playoffs.
“When people watch me during games I’m just sitting with my arms crossed,” he said.
Wassertzug plays and coaches hockey recreationally, and two of his children have played at the club level. He said he has been a hockey fan since the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Olympics, when the underdog United States men’s hockey team defeated the Soviet Union. He started following the Capitals in the mid-1990s, and remembers the first finals appearance.
“It wasn’t the same emotionally, but still exciting,” he said.
Wassertzug said he thinks this year’s Capitals team is different from past teams because it wasn’t predicted to win the Stanley Cup at the beginning of the season. Unburdened by expectation, the Capitals have had an easier time proving the critics wrong, he believes.
“The hardest thing to do in my mind is to channel anger into better play,” he said.
Wassertzug also said the maturation of young players, such as rookie defenseman Christian Djoos, contributed to the team’s playoff success.
“They brought a bunch of low-paid third and fourth liners, and that helped,” he said. “I also think Ovie realizes he’s getting older, and he’s a little more calm. He looks like a man on a mission.”
For Washington, a Stanley Cup would be the first major sports championship for the city since the Redskins won the Super Bowl 26 years ago. Wassertzug said that would provide an enormous positive jolt to the city.
“For whatever reason, this town never got the respect as a great sports town,” he said. “In Pittsburgh, the fans own their team, and that kind of loyalty is admirable. So achieving that is a huge uplift.”
Nancy Cohen, a native Washingtonian and Las Vegas resident for the last 15 years, said the finals is a “dream scenario,” of the two teams she loves most competing. Cohen grew up 15 minutes from the now-demolished Capital Centre in Landover, where the team played until moving into their downtown arena in 1997. She was a diehard Capitals fan until the Knights began playing last year, and she decided to support her hometown team.
“I wouldn’t be upset if either team won, but I’m rooting for the Knights,” she said.
The Knights’ success this season, Cohen said, has helped unify a city in the wake of the shooting last October that killed 58 people. The outpouring of fan support, she said, has made a large city feel like “a very small town.”
“It’s as if everybody knows everybody,” she said. “We’ve never had anything like this that brought us together.”
To former Capitals goaltender Bernie Wolfe, a Stanley Cup win would mean that his old team’s fortunes have come full circle since he was playing almost 40 years ago. Wolfe, one of only two Jewish players in Capitals history, said he still gets a tear in his eye when the Stanley Cup is presented each year. If Washington wins, he said he’ll “have more than one tear in my eye.”
“I remember us being called the hapless Caps,” he said. “It’s their turn to get rid of that anchor around their neck.”