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Capitals fans jam practice rink for send-off before Stanley Cup Final

'Awesome' turnout of 6,000 at Washington's last home skate prior to Game 1 at Golden Knights

by Brian McNally / NHL.com Correspondent

ARLINGTON, Va. -- More than 6,000 fans attended a Stanley Cup Final send-off event at Washington Capitals practice Saturday before the Eastern Conference champions traveled to Las Vegas.

The Capitals will play the Western Conference champion Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 at T-Mobile Arena on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS, SN). 

Fans filled every bleacher seat and the entire balcony level above the main rink, and were lined up three rows deep at ice level and along the balcony above the secondary rink. Washington uses each rink during a standard practice. Huge cheers greeted each Capitals player when he stepped from the hallway leading out of the locker room. 

"It's huge. The town is all in. The town is excited," forward Alex Ovechkin said. "The people get involved. It's been 20 years since the last time the Caps were in the Final."

 

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Goaltender Braden Holtby was the first player on the ice at about 10 a.m., and the crowd roared at his appearance. One after another, teammates followed. 

Ovechkin found a puck and shot it into an empty net on his way through the hallway to the second rink. Defenseman Dmitry Orlov pumped his arms in the air when he took the ice. Coach Barry Trotz twirled his stick in the air, and owner Ted Leonsis, wearing an Ovechkin jersey, tossed T-shirts into the crowd.

Tweet from @bmcnally14: No big deal really. Just the owner of an NHL team doing his own personal t-shirt toss while wearing the jersey of his star player. Ted Leonsis kind of has a good arm. pic.twitter.com/LNKi0hdl8s

The Capitals practiced for about an hour, had their media availability, and then dressed and departed to prepare for their flight to the Final.

Fans exited the rink and lined up by the thousands on the top deck of the parking garage at the practice facility. They cheered the players as they were walking out to their cars. 

"I thought we would get a decent turnout, but this is crazy," forward T.J. Oshie said. "Nothing I've ever had before. It's awesome. It's awesome to see how into it they are, how much they care, and how much they want to be a part of it."

Oshie said the cheers were so loud when the Capitals took the ice, players still inside the locker room could feel the walls shaking. 

Capitals fan Dan Shores drove his wife, Jessica, and son, Elliot, to the event from Winchester, Va., about a 70-mile trip. They left at 7:30 a.m.

Tweet from @Capitals: Perfect way to head off to Vegas. Thank you #Caps Fans. #ALLCAPS #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/wsqpRL7l6J

Elliot, 6, who recently started playing hockey, sported an Ovechkin jersey with multiple autographs. He can't watch a game without playing with a stick and a puck, his dad said. Dan Shores remembers watching the Capitals play the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final in 1998 in his dorm room in college.

"This is amazing. We've been to the [Capitals] Fan Fest before in the summer, and it always seemed like a lot of people for Kettler," Shores said. "But I'm a recording engineer and am real sensitive to loudness and the, volume in here was exceedingly loud. I was blown away."  

William Stillwell, 43, better known to Capitals fans as "Loud Goat" for the "Let's Go, Caps" cheers he leads from the lower level at Capital One Arena, was in attendance at the send-off rally. A fan since 1982, Stillwell was at Washington's former practice facility in Piney Orchard, Maryland, in 1998 when the Capitals last made the Stanley Cup Final. That day, 100 fans showed up to send the team off to Detroit.

"This is the scene that can generate when your team is fulfilling its promise," Stillwell said. "A lot of people have been waiting and saying, 'Wake me when we get to the third round,' and those people are out of hibernation and you've got all the kids who grew up around '98 who saw that and now they're thirsting for something like this. 

"It's an easy scene to be a part of and it's beautiful to see this kind of turnout."

Photos courtesy of Washington Capitals

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