Around a quarter to six last night, a fire truck turned onto 7th Street and passed the snaking line of hockey fans awaiting entrance into Verizon Center. “Man, everyone’s into this ‘red out'”, I chuckled to Patrick. A second later, my joke was split straight down the middle when the driver bellowed out, “LET’S GO CAPS!”

That’s what the regular season finale between the Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers meant to the fans, be they diehards (a fan since ’93, myself) or bandwagon jumpers. Thanksgiving Day of 2007 the Caps ranked dead last in the entire league, provoking a change in head coach (from Glen Hanlon to Slapshot alumni Bruce Boudreau). A win (or overtime loss) in their final game would secure a playoff spot as Southeast Division champions. The game environment would most assuredly resemble that of a game 7 rather than a game 82.

I’ve attended numerous sporting events: all four “major” sports and even a college football game up at Penn State back when Ki-Jana Carter looked like a future NFL power back. Every one was a regular season matchup with no palpable implication. Really, prior to Saturday night, the most “important game” was the Vikings-Redskins one that opened up the 2006 Monday Night Football season (on the fifth anniversary of September 11th, no less).

The reality of the Caps game simultaneously thrilled and chilled me. It’s one thing to sit in front of the television to watch as your favorite team runs from the face of greatness like it resembled the visage of Large Marge. But to actually be in attendance? To have the dread unfold in front of you? Ugh. I wasn’t sure I could handle all that.

Two games had been played at Verizon, with the team encouraging fans to take part in a “red out”. Not only is red the primary color of the Caps home jerseys, it’s also a hue that research suggests can give the winning edge to competitors. I don’t exactly buy into this superstition, but since red also happens to be my favorite color and my wardrobe thus doesn’t weep for lack of it, I donned a red Gap sweater. Patrick came up with a Sleater-Kinney and red flannel, possibly the only band shirt of the evening.

Around 6 PM, fans were let into the Verizon Center. Patrick and I briefly checked out merch then went to find our seats in Section 100. This is where the experience became officially chimeric.

Several weeks ago we had purchased tix through Ticketmaster’s “Ticket Exchange” program, where fans resell their tickets, some at just above face value, some well above. Patrick found a pair of seats in Section 100, Row C, for just a little over $100 (not much of a markup from their original value of 95 bucks). We knew these would be sweet perches, but uh…

Right behind the Caps bench? Lovely. If you have ever wanted to sit mere inches from a group of people separated only by plexiglass and understand nothing they are screaming to each other, behind the bench at a hockey game is the place for you. (Okay, not entirely true; I did hear an assistant coach tell Donald Brashear to sit down.)

The venue didn’t quite have the imposing majesty of, say, the Calgary Flames’ famous “C of Red“, but it was damned impressive. Fans not only showed up with Caps regalia, but I also spotted jersey and shirts representing the Red Wings, DC United, the Red Sox, the Nationals, the Redskins and the University of Maryland. The Washington Post on Sunday also reported a Hagerstown Bulldogs shirt sighting, which I am beyond peeved went undetected by my radar. I think I may have gone apoplectic at that.

A handily-wielded machete would have been required to mow down the tension which virtually vibrated throughout the building. When the Capitals got on the board first, thanks to an outstanding effort by Tomas Fleischmann, the relief was so great you’d think 18,000 people just got word back from the doctor that the surgery went perfectly and their mothers will be fine. My bottle of Budweiser tasted that much better right afterward.

Then of course Florida tied it up on a goal that had to be reviewed by the judges “upstairs”. This ruling came down just as a penalty was called on Sergei Fedorov, and a great deal of air escaped the luft balloon. We could all sense the tide about to turn at the worst possible time. Unless…no!

Don’t stop believin’. Hold on to that feelin’. Streetlights. People. Whoa oh oh. Which is all very nice and inspirational but you remember how The Sopranos ended, right? I’m just sayin’. And am I the only one who’s noticing Semin on the power play? You don’t wait for the perfect shot. Any shot you can get off is the perfect shot, especially when you’re close enough to smell the goalie’s cheesesteak breath.

The single bottle of beer was crucial to insuring I didn’t turtle up and I ended up acting much like I do watching games on TV. Chatty, but not loud; opinionated, but not omniscient; nervous, but not pessimistic. My eyes split time between the action on the ice (name a sport better to watch in person than hockey) and the action as shown on the overhead scoreboard. Patrick would watch the ‘board when Florida was in the Caps zone, and avert his eyes back to the rink when the Caps were threatening. Both of us vociferously participated in the chanting throughout, and were–guaranteed–among the most excited fans in the place when Washington went ahead on a textbook Fedorov goal in the second period.

The second intermission was jotted with the jitters.

“One more goal, Patrick, I think a two goal lead is the key here. We can do it. Wait, not we. We’re not doing shit. It’s them out there. We’re just lucky enough to be here.”

“If we get on KissCam I’ll totally slip the tongue.”

And at the beginning of the third period: “Where’s Ovechkin? I don’t see him out there.”

“He may be way down on the other end o’ the bench. Damn, he really is MVP. Most Vanishing Player!” (Lamentably, Patrick missed my grand comedic flourish. At least I lament it.)

That third period may stand forever as the longest 20 minutes of my life. I don’t think that would be a solitary sentiment, either, if anyone polled the crowd.

The Vikings blew it on the last game of the ’07-08 season, the Nationals may or may not surpass .500 this year, but goddamnit, the Capitals will not disappoint me. I love this team. They put forth the effort. They want to win. Ovechkin is the new god of hockey and one day we will all go to Verizon Center and marvel at how much better his statue looks than that stupid Crosby one in Pittsburgh. Am I even appreciating this fully? Do the people in my row even realize we could be sitting mere inches from the greatest left winger in hockey history? A man who signed a $124 million dollar contract without an agent? A man who found his girlfriend on the Russian equivalent of Does anyone here tonight have any idea how godhead it is to find love over the Internet? Patrick and I got together through the Sonic Youth message board! Yeah! There, I admitted it! Thank you, Alex, for making the world safe for Internet-abetted love stories. You’ve made us feel infinitely less nerdy. ONE OF US.

Every shred of doubt, every dry gust of panic, every certainty that Bill McCreary was a douchebag with an IQ too cold for snow who would give the Panthers this game for sure vanished when Alexander Semin finally remembered that power plays are a super time to shoot that li’l rubber thingy with your stick thingy at that mesh thingy. The crowd became a busted tomato and an exuberant Ovechkin skated over and leaped up into his celebrating teammates, taking them all down with him in a dogpile.

Chants of “M-V-P” rained down, with the guy next to Patrick remarking that in Canada, fans would just chant “Hart! Hart!” Jesus how many Canadian hockey writers will just loathe putting Ovy in first place for the Hart? Oh well, fret not, TSN nation, you always have Sidney Crosby’s Gatorade commercials. He didn’t hurt his ankle doing those, did he?

In the frenzy, Patrick got his Ned Flanders on and yelled, “Yes, eat all of our shirts!” The dude next to him (you may recall him from such paragraphs as the one immediately preceding the one you are reading) turned around and laughed. Ah, when people bond over Simpsons quotes.

You know what rocks about sitting right behind the plexiglass? Banging the shit out of it when the game’s over.

After was the traditional “Jerseys Off Our Backs”, a giveaway on Fan Appreciation Night that allows randomly selected folk to take the ice across from the Caps players and receive one players game-worn jersey. Ovy’s jersey went to a young girl who was already wearing one. I guarantee her parents are regretting that $200 they plunked down, for real. Every Cap handed over their shirt, even injured stars like Cap’n Chris Clark.

Slap Shot pointed at me and later, Patrick, as we took photos. This made us feel happy. Then, as the team skated off the ice, Ovechkin threw his stick up into our section, where it was caught several rows back without one drop of blood drawn. This made us jealous, but hey, the tickets did warn us: “At the end of the game, the best player in the world may throw his hockey stick into the audience. Please be alert.” Seriously. Check the back of any Caps home game ticket.

The Mighty Mites, oh how I adore thee. Mainly because “Linus and Lucy” plays as they skate up and down the ice. Number 8 in the white kept diving all over the damn place. “Your number is 8, not 87!”

A very, very cool sign displayed by a couple in our row. A great concept executed wonderfully. And here we were wanting to make a sign that said, SLEATER-KINNEY HEARTS OVY. Ah well.

Two of the most infamous soundbites in modern sports history are Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora bleating in disbelief over a reporters query about his teams “playoffs?!” chances and then-76er Allen Iverson expressing his disbelief that such controversy had arisen over his decision to skip team practice. Why were these two fantastic rants were never remixed over a club beat? Or hell, even the “It Takes Two” beat? Missed opportunities.

Bloggers…seeking other bloggers.

Finally, a seat in the house where I can get a clear view of the Caps retired numbers! Dale Hunter starts fights at weddings and funerals.

As is natural, Patrick and I wanted to extend the ecstasy. A trip to the Greene Turtle proved too unnecessarily hectic (by our standards, anyway) so we walked out in search of a Latin-Japanese fusion place called Zengo that we had come across online earlier in the day when surfing for possible places to eat after the game. (“Suitable” meaning, no burgers or fries.) We circled the complex in search of this gastronomical Shangri-la, stopping only to let cars exit the public parking lots, horns blaring in celebration, and to extend our Ovechkin bobblehead boxes in triumph. When we reached the opposite entrance to the Glenmont Metro entrance, Patrick saw and immediately went to, a street directory. Gazing around a part of the area I had never set eyes on before, I noticed the complex next to the escalators, especially the neon letters that spelled out ZENGO. Success! It was totally a trend that night.

Zengo is a two-floor establishment with a bar occupying the lower level and the upper tier reserved for fine dining. It was only a 20 minute wait for our non-reservation-having asses on a Saturday night, not shabby whatsoever. 75% of said time was spent reading the menu, which was like reading a bizarro Encyclopedia Brown book–it didn’t solve shit. Everything looked tempting. Even the dishes that had coconut in them.

Once led upstairs, our decidedly unstylish attire and still-unopened bobblehead boxes set us apart immediately. All the guys were either in suits or crisp button-ups while the women were supra-fresh stylee in fine spring tunics and cool boots, immaculately coiffed and confident. The service was as courteous and helpful as either of us has experienced in a restaurant (what up, Fernando), explaining to us the “give and take” concept of Zengo. The food is delivered to your table as it is prepared, allowing all party members to partake of the dish. Sharing, lest any of us forget, is caring. This is mind, we ordered sake sangria to drink, and Volcano sushi rolls, Won Ton Tacos and seared snapper.

The first two dishes best exemplified the restaurants concept. The salmon and blue crab sushi was a fantastic appetizer, with this wow-getting sauce atop each of the six rolls. Unlike our last trap to Sakura, the dish was split evenly between us.

The tacos intrigued us both the most, and ended up delivering the most as well. Charred ahi tuna, rice, pickled ginger and mango salsa in bite-sized shells atop guacamole so good that we left nary a half-bite on the plate.

Finally it was the dish I’d selected for us to share, the seared snapper. It came with plantain puree, chayote and green apple curry. If your face went kinda screwy at the curry, bust out the Phillips. One of the most delicious meals we’ve ever been fortunate enough to enjoy, and perfectly portioned as well. As I explained before, Zengo is a restaurant with a “concept” and as such one will pay out the ass for it. That said, it wasn’t much more than I’ve paid to celebrate my German heritage with a meal at Schmankerl Stube here in Hagerstown.

We floated back home to discover that not only did Patrick’s mother tape the game off Comcast SportsNet, she watched it all the way through and pretty much whenever they showed Coach Boudreau on the bench, there we were too. I got to see it for myself when the network reran the game tonight. Highlights include Patrick running off at the mouth for reasons now lost to time and me necking a Budweiser like the good country girl I remain no matter how many foreign films I am determined to watch or languages I am determined to learn.

Ladies and gentlemen…the 2007-2008 Southeast Division Champions…the Washington Capitals.

Thanks. To the team, to Ted Leonsis and George McPhee, to my fellow fans, to Patrick and especially to the people who just couldn’t use their tickets for the final game of the season. Hope you still had fun, no matter what you were doing.