Capitals give fans treat

Victory opens season as team goes to work to erase lockout bitterness

Capitals 3, Blue Jackets 2

Pro Hockey

October 06, 2005|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- The NHL officially launched its bid to win back its fans last night after a 10-month lockout snuffed out last season. The Washington Capitals did their part by opening their arms to the faithful and delivering a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets before an announced crowd of 16,325 at MCI Center.

On a night on which all 30 teams played for the first time in NHL history, spectators entered the arena and saw a "Thank You Fans!" message on the ice. Signs reading "Welcome Back" hung on concourses. The pre-game player introductions included a laser show, bursts of fire and rowdy revivals of the "Let's go Caps!" cheer.

And after a scoreless first period left them stirring anxiously, the home fans got the taste they wanted. Rookie forward sensation Alexander Ovechkin scored Washington's first two goals within a five-minute span to erase a pair of one-goal leads by Columbus.

Then, veteran forward Dainius Zubrus scored on a power-play goal with 3:09 left in the second period.

Veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig and the defense pretty much did the rest. Kolzig recorded 17 of his 35 saves in the final period to clinch the victory.

Although the crowd fell notably short of a sellout, hockey finally was back, and with a new look, including rule changes designed to pump more scoring into the game.

"We have a pretty hard-core base [of fans]," Kolzig said. "It took them a little bit to get into it, but once Ove got that first goal, it woke them right up and there was just a buzz in the building the rest of the night. If we can keep that going every night, it's going to be beneficial to us."

Fans ranged from highly engaged season-ticket holders to casual observers taking a curious peek at a revamped product. The league has added space in the offensive zone, reduced pad size for goalies and eliminated ties by introducing shootouts if a deadlock is not broken after a five-minute overtime.

"I'm a hockey fan, not an NHL fan," said Dean Schultz, 43, of Waldorf, who sat with his two sons, Kyle and Kevin, each of whom plays youth hockey in Charles County. "I watched a lot of hockey last year. I didn't miss [the pro game] too much. But I was going to find some way to get here tonight. [I missed] the speed and skill of the game.

"The NHL is trying to do a lot of good. I think [the new rules] will speed up the game. The reason I started watching hockey [as a youngster] was because the game was so fast. I'm just glad the season started. I think the owners and the players deserve each other, but I'm not holding animosity toward any of them."

Keith Thomas, 42, of Elkridge, who plays in a men's hockey league and has owned Capitals season tickets for four years, said the lockout tortured him. Last night, not only was he pleased that the club cut his ticket costs by about 15 percent, but watching the players warm up also eased his lockout pain.

Thomas blamed the owners for the lost season.

"I think they realized they made a mistake by canceling the season. There weren't many people here for the preseason games," Thomas said. "If there was never an NHL again, I'd still be playing and coaching youth hockey. I love the game."

Chris Foss, 32, of Alexandria said he had been to about a half dozen Caps games before coming last night. He doesn't think the lockout did irreparable damage to a sport that has long struggled to find solid footing in the United States, anyway.

"I think the hard-core fans really missed it, but I don't think [the lockout] left a black mark like the greed factor did with [the] baseball [strike in 1994]," Foss said. "The NHL is trying to hype the excitement at the beginning of the season. It's been declining, and the lockout didn't help. It's going to be a constant struggle to keep it afloat."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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