Scoring low but excitement high at Baltimore Hockey Classic

Washington CapitalsNashville PredatorsChicago BearsMichal NeuvirthMike GreenNiclas BergforsVerizon

The outcome wasn't what fans had hoped for, but Baltimore rocked the red Tuesday night.

On the night when professional ice hockey returned to Baltimore for the first time since 1997, a sellout crowd of an announced 11,082 fans packed 1st Mariner Arena and watched the Nashville Predators beat the Washington Capitals, 2-0, in the inaugural Baltimore Hockey Classic.

There were a number of empty seats, but both curious Charm City sports fans and die-hard puck lovers crowded the concourse before the event. They browsed through merchandise from vendors who were selling Capitals memorabilia and game-worn gear from the Baltimore Clippers, Skipjacks and Bandits. They cheered loudly when starting goalie Michal Neuvirth led the Capitals onto the ice. And, of course, there was a thunderous "O" during the national anthem.

And that was all before the puck was dropped.

"It's like Verizon Center North up here," Geoff Timmerman, 34, of Columbia said in the third period. "There's a lot of red. The game's not going our way, but it's great to see this."

Added Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, who played one season for the Skipjacks: "I didn't know what to expect, but I did know that when I played here, the Baltimore fans were great. … [I expected] that they would be rowdy."

After a scoreless first period that featured few scoring chances as the two teams worked off summer rust — it was the preseason opener for Washington; Nashville's first game was Monday — the Predators got on the board first with 2:29 left in the second period.

Nashville defenseman Shea Weber took a pass from Niclas Bergfors in the right corner and fired a back-door pass to Chris Mueller, who deposited the puck into an open net.

The Predators made it 2-0 midway through the third period when Colin Wilson finished a give-and-go with Bergfors. Neuvirth flashed his left pad to make the initial save on Wilson, but the rebound ricocheted off sliding Capitals defenseman Patrick Wellar and into the net.

The Capitals frantically tried to cut into the lead in the game's closing minutes, but they couldn't get the puck past Predators goalie Jeremy Smith, who replaced starter Pekka Rinne midway through the second period. The duo combined to make 29 saves for the shutout against a Capitals lineup that included Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.

The way the crowd gasped at close calls around Nashville's net and clapped when fourth-liners finished their checks, you wouldn't have thought it was the city's first major hockey game in 14 years.

The Bandits were the last of six professional hockey teams since 1933 to call Baltimore home. On April 23, 1997, the Bandits skated off the ice at what was then called the Baltimore Arena after falling, 4-2, to the Philadelphia Phantoms, a loss that knocked the Bandits out of the first round of the American Hockey League playoffs.

Months later, the Bandits bolted Baltimore. But judging by the Skipjacks and Bandits apparel that stuck out in a sea of red Tuesday, for some, the history and a love of hockey never left.

One of the diehards who dusted off his yellow and black Skipjacks jersey was Joe Brooks of Dundalk, who was there with his wife, Kathi. The couple met at a Clippers game decades ago and were regulars at the arena, no matter which now-defunct team they were rooting for.

"It's a lot of nostalgia coming back to the arena after all these years," said Brooks, who revealed only that he is in his sixties. "We love hockey. It's a big part of our life and it always has been and it probably always will be. I'd love to see some kind of rebirth of it here."

Brooks, who is a partial season-ticket holder of the Hershey (Pa.) Bears, the AHL affiliate of the Capitals, believes that even with strong interest in the Ravens and Orioles, a hockey team could have a place today, too.

His brother, Tom, who was at his side wearing a black-and-orange Clippers shirt, agreed.

"My wife passed away in June, but she was looking forward to getting back here," he said.

She probably would have been pleased with the action and atmosphere inside the arena. Despite sloppy ice conditions that slowed the action, hockey fans young and old were fired up for a game that didn't count in the NHL standings.

"It's a preseason game, and they were real loud and they were into the game," Capitals forward Marcus Johansson said. "So it was fun. They helped us a lot out there."

Maureen Doyle, 26, of Federal Hill became a Capitals fan this year. "A bunch of friends were on the bandwagon. I said, why not join?" she said as her friends navigated the beer line.

Doyle still doesn't know much about hockey, she said, but now that she has gotten a taste, she would support a team if it came to Baltimore. "For sure," she said. "It's fun."

Former Capitals defenseman Rod Langway, who works in public relations for the team, thinks hockey could thrive here. He stood outside the glass behind the Capitals' net during pre-game warm-ups, loud rap music blaring through speakers behind him and a pair of spandex-clad cheerleaders — the Capitals call them "Red Rockers" — standing at his side.

"When you've got the best hockey player in the world playing for a team, the interest goes up," Langway said, referring to Ovechkin. "There are hockey people everywhere. And they're out here. It's going to be a full house tonight. If you build another rink — a smaller one — who knows?"

matt.vensel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattvensel

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Washington CapitalsNashville PredatorsChicago BearsMichal NeuvirthMike GreenNiclas BergforsVerizon
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