There is never a second chance to play your first NHL game, so Reggie Savage got to Capital Centre early last night.

"I wanted to see the atmosphere," he said. "Since the day they drafted me, June 11, 1988, I've dreamed of playing at Capital Centre."

When Savage arrived at 5 p.m., there weren't many people in the locker room, save the usuals -- trainer Stan Wong, equipment manager Doug Shearer and assistant Craig "Woody" Leydig. By the time the game started, there were 11,491 in the stands and they were waiting for Savage.

"I'm used to playing in front of 3,000 in Baltimore," said Savage, who was recalled from the Skipjacks on Monday.

Early on, the crowd had little to cheer except their first regular season look at Savage, who is one of the few black players in hockey and a No. 1 draft pick. By the end of the game, they were thinking more of the Capitals' come-from-behind 5-3 win over the Vancouver Canucks.

"I was glad the team won," said Savage, knowing debuts often are forgotten amid defeats. "You never know how the crowd is going to react but I was appreciative of how they reacted."

There were no goals or assists for Savage among the points registered last night. There were some nice plays and a good check on Petr Nedved along the boards. Savage's best scoring chance came in the second period, when he carried in on a two-on-one, waiting for Mikhail Tatarinov.

"I was waiting all the way," said Savage, who finally took a shot that Vancouver goalie Kirk McLean smothered. "He gave me a little bit of the five-hole {between the legs} but I shot way too high."

Capitals Coach Terry Murray was relieved his team had come up with a solid performance and a win. He was pleased to see Dino Ciccarelli score his 400th goal, happy to see a 60-minute effort after several that were less than sterling. Savage's role was a relatively minor one, but that too was positive.

"I think he played very well for the first game," Murray said. "He was strong in the one-on-one situations."

Savage said he was a little nervous, but he wasn't the most nervous person in the building.

"I think I was," said his father, Jean Guy Savage, who along with his wife, Rita, flew in from Montreal to see the game. "It was a beautiful day for us. For his first game, he played very well."

At 20, Savage is the youngest player the Capitals have had in uniform this season. Opponents know when a player is in his first game and Vancouver's agitator, Garth Butcher, rubbed his glove in Savage's face late in the third period.

"I know Garth is a tough guy and a good defenseman, but you can't read into it," Savage said of Butcher's attempt to draw him into a penalty.