Washington Capitals mascot Slapshot pumps up fans at the Baltimore… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
If Tuesday night's Baltimore Hockey Classic, which pitted the Washington Capitals against the Boston Bruins, was any indication, Baltimore had better things to do than watch a live NHL preseason game.
There were thousands of empty seats inside Baltimore Arena, though many of the others were filled with red-clad Capitals fans and some wearing the jerseys of past Capitals, such as Peter Bondra, Olaf Kolzig and Jaromir Jagr. There were a number of black and gold Bruins jerseys inside the half-filled arena, too.
The puck-lovers who did show up booed as loud as they collectively could when the Bruins were introduced as the defending Eastern Conference champions. They roared when Washington's Dane Byers and Boston's Bobby Robins dropped the gloves in the first period. And they jumped to their feet and pounded the Plexiglas after every Capitals goal. The game was eventually decided in an eight-round shootout as the Bruins won, 3-2, in front of an announced 7,634, who stood for the entire shootout.
Still, the smattering of fans in the upper deck and a lack of energy in the arena for most of the game were impossible to ignore.
"Compared to last time [in 2011], it was not as good," Patrick Johnson, 42, of Dundalk said. "There was a lot more people then. It's not what I thought it was going to be, that's for sure. The excitement's not there. They lost [part of] last season due to the lockout, so I guess they lost some momentum here."
Tuesday's game was the second installment of the Baltimore Hockey Classic, which Baltimore Arena officials hope will become an annual game. The inaugural Baltimore Hockey Classic was played two years ago, with the Capitals losing, 2-0, to the Nashville Predators in front of an announced 11,082, which was a sellout. Last year's exhibition was canceled because of the NHL lockout.
After the inaugural game, players were critical of the ice conditions at the arena, which had not hosted a professional ice hockey game since 1997, the last year the Bandits of the American Hockey League called Baltimore home. Rising temperatures and humidity inside the arena caused the ice to melt and puddles to form on the playing surface.
The poor ice conditions and the subsequent poor play two years ago did not dissuade some fans from returning.
"Of course I was going to come back," said Dave Eden, 25, of Riverside, who hopes the city will build a new arena to attract a minor league hockey team. "I was a huge Skipjacks fan. A huge Clippers fan. Bandits fan. I love seeing the game at the arena here. This is great."
This year, the ice held firm, though the puck often rolled up on edge or skipped over sticks after hard passes. Arena officials added a dehumidification system, dialed down the air conditioning and scheduled outside deliveries for the days leading up to the game to ensure that the arena would remain cool inside. It also helped that the weather outside was less steamy this year.
"That was the worst-case scenario, a perfect storm," Baltimore Arena general manager Frank Remesch said. "This was the opposite. Everyone has said nothing but positive things."
Remesch is optimistic that the Capitals will return next season, but he said that will be up to the team. A Capitals spokesman said the team wasn't prepared to comment on returning.
"I'm very surprised at the turnout," said Jeremy Goldberg, 29, of Federal Hill. "It was a lot lighter than two years ago. I figure there were some people who didn't want to come because there were no Caps goals two years ago."
The Capitals changed that this year. Right winger Tom Wilson tapped in a pass from Nathan Walker to put the Capitals up 1-0 with 2:42 left in the first period. With 1:11 left in the second, which was delayed after a body check dislodged a pane of glass, center Casey Wellman deflected a shot from the point by defenseman Steven Oleksy into the net for the second Capitals goal.
Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin said there were some challenges in the rink, which wasn't regulation-size.
"You can't hold the puck," he said. "You can't shoot it. You're afraid to go into the boards because it's too dangerous out there. But it is what it is."
Starting goaltender Braden Holtby stopped all 11 shots he faced, including a right pad save on a breakaway by Chris Kelly in the first period, before he was replaced by Philipp Grubauer midway through the second.
The Bruins got goals from left winger Justin Florek and Kelly to tie the game at 2. They won thanks to Carter Camper's goal in the eighth round of the shootout.