WASHINGTON, D.C. — The crowd at Capital One Arena had been waiting. Many of them had sat in line for hours to reserve their seats, and then through the Washington Mystics’ afternoon match-up against the Minnesota Lynx, and then through the empty two hours between that game’s final buzzer and this one’s puck drop. The night was only just beginning, and it had already been a long day. Then again, it had been an even longer 44 years.
The game itself wasn’t in the arena. It was thousands of miles away, delivered via broadcast on the Jumbotron. But that detail somehow didn’t seem especially relevant, a minor footnote for a crowd that had never seen anything like this. With a 3-1 lead over the Vegas Golden Knights heading into Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Washington Capitals had a chance to clinch their first championship in franchise history. For a fanbase forged in the hellfire of playoff collapse, the concept of hope was something of a luxury—but faith was something different, and it seemed to be everywhere.
The crowd sat through a tense, scoreless first period before being thrown into a manic second one. The Capitals were first to score, uncorking a raucous round of cheers that lasted almost until the Golden Knights tied the game three minutes later. But Washington regained its lead on a power play goal soon after, and for a short stretch, it seemed like maybe this could happen—would happen—after all.
And then came something all too familiar for the crowd, the start of a nightmare that had recurred so many times that it was now simply tradition. In less than seven minutes of play, capped with a power play goal in the final half-minute of the period, the Capitals’ 2-1 lead became a 3-2 deficit. The second intermission was subdued, with the arena growing somewhat close to quiet for the first time all night.
But the third period wrote a new chapter—and, finally, a triumphant ending—for their old nightmarish routine. Just before the halfway mark of the period, Washington tied it up again. A few minutes later, another goal: the final goal, the winning goal. The last seven minutes ticked away, seemingly endless and not done any favors by the bad metaphor of a malfunctioning game clock that extended the last few seconds of the game. At last, though, the clock was fixed. Order was restored; the final handful of seconds officially passed. And then, of course, order was shattered, and all its constituent pieces disappeared. How could it not? The Washington Capitals had won the Stanley Cup.
The crowd released a different scream than all of the wild screams they’d been releasing all night—somehow louder and perhaps deeper, a scream of waiting and not having to wait any more. They sang Queen's “We Are the Champions.” They screamed again when Alex Ovechkin received the Conn Smythe trophy and when he raised the Stanley Cup above his head. He, too, had been waiting.
Strangers high-fived and hugged as they exited the arena. Some broke out in a chant of “We — got — the Cup!” and others in one of “Let's — go — Caps!” People spilled out into the streets for a celebration that radiated outward for blocks, pulsing with a life of its own. They helped each other climb lamp posts and danced to a small brass band at the corner of 8th and H Streets and took each other’s photographs. One loose circle of people cheered as they took turns swigging from a handle of whiskey; a man shotgunned a beer in the middle of 7th Street. It was far too loud to hear anything, except the same few fragments of conversation that kept floating to the top—“Go Caps!” “Finally!” “Hell, yeah!”, all of which seemed to function more or less as a version of I love you to the team and the city and everyone packed shoulder-to-shoulder in Chinatown. Asked if she’d ever seen anything like this before, a city police officer just laughed.
“What do we do now?” a man yelled above the din as midnight drew near, presumably to whomever he’d been celebrating with. Before they could answer, the crowd formed its own reply:
“C-A-P-S, Caps, Caps, Caps!”