BALTIMORE — Forty miles from their usual home, the Washington Capitals’ preseason opener had all the trappings of an NHL contest, from announcers and mascots to a crowd clad in the familiar, ever-present red.
At an aging 1st Mariner Arena, though, the rapidly deteriorating ice conditions quickly became the focus of the Baltimore Hockey Classic rather than the play of either the Capitals or Nashville Predators in what was the first professional hockey game held in Charm City since 1997.
From the start of the game, which Nashville won, 2-0, puddles formed all over the ice surface in the noticeably warm 49-year-old arena, sending pucks slip-sliding at unexpected moments and prompting players to hold themselves back at times in order to avoid injury.
“It was hard because the ice was not that good. It was first our game and we didn’t play exhibition,” Alex Ovechkin said. “Of course you try to think about more when you go to the boards and the corners — especially in the corners, ice is not that good. I don’t know how many times today [equipment manager] Brock [Myles] check our skates because of holes.
“The ice was soft but it’s over,” Ovechkin added. “So thank God nobody got hurt everybody feel healthy.”
The soupy conditions caused some players to fall — Mike Green tumbled twice for no apparent reason — goaltenders skidded past their crease whenever they went down into the butterfly position and the possibility of pretty passing displays were all but impossible to complete. It likely wasn’t the display the 11,082 in attendance expected in the Capitals’ first visit to Baltimore since 1992.
“It’s a lot of dump and chase. There wasn’t a lot of passes, and the puck was bouncing,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “It’s not an excuse. It was the same thing for both teams. I think we maybe should’ve scored a goal or something.”
Following Washington’s morning skate it was already apparent the ice would cause problems. Players and coaches noted how humid and warm the building was and that the ice softened over the course of the session. As Brooks Laich inspected the new surroundings, he discovered a gap between the ice and boards. Crews worked on the sheet, including that spot, throughout the day up until game time but the imperfections persisted.
According to a spokeswoman for 1st Mariner Arena, which opened in 1962, the ice installation began on Sept. 12 and crews were working to maintain it throughout the contest.
By handcuffing the players’ actions and prohibiting some typical plays, the ice also made it difficult to evaluate all that occurred during the contest. That didn’t mean Coach Bruce Boudreau wasn’t able to take away impressions from the contest, however.
“It’s hard to judge skill,” Boudreau said of assessing talent in the mushy ice, “but it’s always easy to judge effort. Whether you’re in a blinding snow storm or a rain storm, as the Winter Classic was, you can tell.”
To be certain, the Capitals have played on less than ideal ice before during their careers. But the last game where so much of the focus was diverted away from the play and toward puddles came in January during the 2011 Winter Classic, held outdoors at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
In addition to the melting ice, Tuesday’s contest held another similarity to the Winter Classic. Ovechkin said the high temperature in the building required players to hydrate more as they sweated through their equipment, just as they did outdoors last New Year’s.
“They just didn’t get the building cold enough,” Nashville Coach Barry Trotz said. “It wasn’t great. You really have to be mentally tough. Even from our standpoint we had to say let’s not try to be too creative here. The conditions wouldn’t allow us that.”
Capitals notes: Roman Hamrlik, who left Saturday’s conditioning test with tightness in his groin, looked no worse for wear in a scrimmage at KCI on Tuesday. . . . Washington cut six players from its training camp roster, returning forwards Samuel Henley, Luke Lockhart and Garrett Ross, along with defenseman James Oligny, to their junior teams. Defenseman Tyler Ludwig and forward Taylor Stefishen, whose rights the Capitals traded a conditional seventh-round pick to Nashville for, were also cut. Should the Capitals not come to terms with Stefishen by June 1, 2012, they will retain that seventh-round choice in 2013.