I have vivid memories of watching Sergei Fedorov celebrate with his teammates at Verizon Center (formerly MCI Center) in 1998.
Fedorov had just capped another dream season with the Detroit Red Wings, and as the Washington fans filed out of the arena, I watched him embrace the Stanley Cup.
For a team that had never competed for the Cup before, the Capitals were happy just getting there.
Now, getting on in his years and playing the role of Russian mentor rather than high-octane sniper, Fedorov flashed his exuberant smile again last night.
His deceptive wrist-shot over the left shoulder of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist propelled the Capitals into the second round. Fedorov looked young again, he looked like he did eleven years ago.
He looked endlessly happy.
A lot has transpired with the Washington Capitals fan base, and the NHL, in eleven years. We have had a few good years, with mostly successful regular seasons or divisional titles, followed by early playoff exits.
We have also been plagued by terrible seasons, and the misery of the "Jagr years," though that led to a first overall draft pick (and the dawn of the Ovechkin era).
The one thing the Washington Capitals fan base has not witnessed is playoff success. While advancing past round one does not equate to success, for the Capitals, it indicates progress.
After the NHL lockout, the Capitals sunk to new lows, both on the ice and in season ticket subscriptions. The Verizon Center was, at times, empty and lifeless.
Last night's 2-1 Game 7 victory over the New York Rangers seemed to exorcise so many demons for the team and the fans. There was a sea of red, and a sound of 18,277 rocking fans unleashing their fury on the warm night.
I have to say, it felt great.
I know the Washington Capitals have a long road ahead to validate their season and make "real" progress in their quest for the Stanley Cup. One desperate comeback, against what should have been an easy foe, only gets them so far.
Still, moving forward, even in baby steps, is progress.
And for the life-long fans like myself, last night was a trip in the time machine, guided by veteran Sergei Fedorov.
The journey reminded us all of Dale Hunter's victorious breakaway goal in 1988 versus the Philadelphia Flyers, and of Joe Juneau's rebound goal to advance to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998 versus Buffalo.
All of those pivotal Capitals moments were courtesy of a veteran, a player advancing in age, but with the skill and mental toughness to endure the playoffs.
I can say I was lucky to be at all four Capitals wins in round one this season. Two came on enemy ice at Madison Square Garden, and two wonderful wins at home (including last night's gut-wrencher).
I got to see Dale Hunter's goal live in 1988, as well as every game of the 1998 playoff run to the Cup Finals. I guess that makes me a veteran too.
We love having the "young guns" like Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Niklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and now Simeon Varlamov. But it is good to have the gritty veterans too, like Fedorov, Chris Clark, and Tom Poti.
As fans, we have also welcomed a new era of sell-outs at home, and even though the bandwagon is rolling, any and all who seek to "Rock the Red" are welcome.
The fan base, like the team, needs veterans too—the folks who remember where we have been, and who can appreciate where we are headed.
As we were exiting the Verizon Center last night into the raucous crowd on F Street, I passed a young fan, maybe 8 years old, walking with her father. They recited "C-A-P-S" at the top of their lungs, followed by the crowd responding with a louder "CAPS CAPS CAPS."
It was the perfect balance of the veteran fan and the new generation celebrating progress.
I immediately thought of the veteran Fedorov hugging Ovechkin at the final horn last night—the perfect balance of the old and the young celebrating progress.
Now the focus is on round two and the Pittsburgh Penguins. I guess I have had my 12 hours to gush over the emotional high of escaping the first round.
Like veteran players, even veteran fans have to get back to business.
Rock the Red!