"I remember going there the past couple of years, playing against these guys and there weren't that many people in the stands. There wasn't any buzz around the arena. Around the middle of last season we started winning, started playing really well when Bruce took over, started playing up to our potential and the city just ran with it."
-- Tom Poti
The New York Rangers will be entering one of the loudest buildings in the NHL Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, TSN) for Game 1 of their Stanley Cup Playoff Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Capitals.
"Rock the Red" has become the team's theme and the fans have reacted with enthusiasm. It started midway last season after Bruce Boudreau took over as coach and instituted a more aggressive style of play.
Now, fans wear red to the Verizon Center to cheer on the hometown heroes, and players, both the Capitals and their opponents, have commented on the noise in the building. Defenseman Tom Poti has the perspective of being an NHL veteran who competed against the Capitals for eight seasons before joining them last season. He said the sound can be deafening at times.
"It's huge," Poti said. "I remember going there the past couple of years, playing against these guys and there weren't that many people in the stands. There wasn't any buzz around the arena. Around the middle of last season we started winning, started playing really well when Bruce took over, started playing up to our potential and the city just ran with it.
"We have this thing called 'Rock the Red.' Everyone wears their red shirts and red jerseys and it's just an awesome, awesome atmosphere to play in. It's the best of the few stops that I've had."
Philadelphia Flyers forward Scott Hartnell plays with a lot of emotion and knows how uplifting it can be to have the fans' support. He says it's been a lot tougher to play against the Capitals for the past season and a half with that team absorbing energy from their fans.
"Oh, without a doubt. Other than maybe Chicago or St. Louis, it's right up there for fans coming back into the building," he said. "Just how loud it is in the building. They've really captured the eye of the fans again, you know, seeing a sea of red. The old-school jersey is back. It's a tough place to play."
Ovechkin's dominance and Boudreau's canny coaching aren't the only reasons for the Capitals' improvement. Mike Green led NHL defensemen in scoring this season and the rest of the defense is mostly big, strong players who can rattle the boards with their checks. Big hits are a big part of the fun in Washington. Behind the defense, Jose Theodore has turned in a strong season in goal while Ovechkin is supported by a strong cast of improving forwards, especially Alexander Semin.
Center Brooks Laich, 25, is one of those improving forwards. He's been a 20-goal scorer the past two seasons under Boudreau after scoring less than 10 goals in each of his first two seasons.
"I think we've turned it into a hockey town," Laich said of Washington. "I've been here four years and the first two years we weren't really successful. We were averaging 12-14,000 fans. In the last couple of years, we've gotten more successful.
"I think we have such a wonderful team. We have the best player in the world and we have other stars. We put a great product on the ice and the fans have really responded."
Laich was asked if he can see the impact of the fan support on the play of the Caps' opponents.
"I think so," Laich said. "Just playing at home, I know how loud it gets and how much momentum it can give us. The Wachovia Center in Philadelphia gets loud and it's tough to play in. You can get off your game sometimes and it sets you back. The other team feeds off that.
"We really appreciate the fan support. They come out for practice. Sometimes we've had a thousand fans at practice, which I don't think a lot of teams can say. It's definitely a fun place to play."
"Last year we were fighting and clawing and wound up winning the division on the last night of the season," Poti said. "But I've never been in this kind of dominant position."
Poti said he can see why the fans like Washington's upbeat, skate-you-out-of-the-rink, aggressive style. He credits Boudreau for urging each player to mold the best aspects of his talent into the overall team game.
"He lets you do what you can do best. He lets you do what got you to the NHL," Poti said. "He doesn't try to curb that or keep guys down. As long as you play the system, play the way he wants you to, you're able to do your thing. Whether you're an offensive guy or a defensive guy, he lets you play to your strengths.
"It's been great here. It's been a lot of fun, playing with a lot of great guys and playing with the best player in the world. I'm in a little more of a leadership role, being old at 32 on this team. It's been fun."
Poti looks at the Capitals' talent and their season-long consistency and sees a team that can win the Stanley Cup.
"We have as good a chance as anyone," Poti said. "We are one of the four or five best teams in the League this year. Once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. We have the right mix of guys, offensive guys and defensive guys. We can get it done. We believe that."
The fans believe it, too, and they're ready to rock the house in support of the Capitals.