WEB EXTRA: Capitals back in action

With talk of rookie phenomenon Sidney Crosby and Wayne “the Great One” Gretzky’s return to the sport as a coach, there’s no question that hockey is back. The only question is whether the fans will be back as well.

After resolving labor disputes that caused the cancellation of the 2004-2005 National Hockey League season, the teams and leagues have taken moves to woo fans for the new season in hopes that attendance numbers won’t drop sharply. New rules have been added to generate high-scoring matches, and the NHL has revamped its logo and added giant letters on the ice at every professional arena to spell out “Thank You Fans” in a plea to draw sizable crowds.

The situation may be even direr here in Washington however, where fans are bracing for a rocky rebuilding year. After a lackluster performance in the previous season landed the team a spot at the bottom of the league, the Capitals dumped star players Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Sergei Gonchar. They have since signed a team full of young, unknown prospects who have a lot of learning to do before Washingtonians can expect a competitive group on the ice.

After edging out a 3-2 win in their season opener against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the squad showed just how dedicated Capitals fans will need to be this year late last week, when they were steamrolled by the Atlanta Thrashers twice, 7-2 and 8-1. The Caps’ passing game lacked any cohesiveness, players handling the puck looked inexperienced and the defense just flat out shut down.

Thankfully, there is some good news. The Capitals managed to retain their star goalie Olaf Kolzig from last season. Kolzig should make the difference between a simple loss and pure humiliation on many a night. Washington’s home team also picked up Alexander Ovechkin, the Russian prodigy and number one draft pick from 2004, right before the labor dispute.

With three goals and one assist so far this season, Ovechkin seems to be the real deal. He’s managed to outscore Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ number one pick from the most recent draft who has received far more media attention than any other new player in the game.

“I don’t think he’s getting enough coverage. He’s the best player on the ice,” said Kevin Pearson, a longtime Caps fan from Virginia.

Speaking Monday at the Capitals third home game of the season against the New York Rangers, Pearson said he is willing to stay with his team no matter how bumpy the season may be.

“I think (the Capitals) just need to build with the young players they want. I’m ready to stick it through,” he said.

While nobody has seriously considered the Capitals for the playoffs this year, there were signs Monday that fans may not have to brace for a disappointing year. The first NHL goals for two rookies, Steve Eminger and Petr Sykora, combined with Ovechkin’s rebound netter gave the Caps a 3-2 win over the New York Rangers.

Most importantly, the team showed its first signs of coordination all season long, with most players exhibiting strong positioning, passing and hustle. Caps veterans Jeff Halpern and Dainus Zubrus skated hard all night, and helped make big plays come together on the ice.

“For us to be competitive, we need everything to fall into place at once,” Kolzig, who has spent more than a decade in Washington, told The Associated Press after the game. “We need to be the hardest-working team out there every night.”

And even if the Caps are not the hardest-working team every night, some fans will be content just knowing that hockey is back.

“I missed it a lot,” said Nancy McCloskey, who began rooting for the team in the late 1990s. “I think D.C. is a city that really likes hockey, so things should be ok here. I just think it will take some time to work out.”

And with a young, fresh team that may have the beginnings of something big, it might be a good idea to flock to the Capitals’ home at the MCI Center in the next few months for some quality entertainment.

After all, as McCloskey said, “It’s nice to have something here other than politics.”

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