When the Washington Capitals last skated out onto the ice sheet at ancient First Mariner Arena, the barn was called Baltimore Arena and the opposing team called the barn home. The Caps faced their AHL farm club – the Baltimore Skipjacks – in an Oct. 2, 1992 preseason game in Charm City.
Just shy of two decades ago, the Caps last faced an NHL foe in a preseason game on Baltimore ice. That was a Sept. 28, 1991 game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
On Tuesday, the Caps will host the Nashville Predators at First Mariner in Baltimore. The game marks the pre-season opener for the Capitals; the Predators are in action on Monday night against the Florida Panthers.
“When you’re playing your first game, you’re excited about it,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “It’s a full house; 11 or 12 thousand. I’ve got to assume that they’re going to be pretty loud.”
"I think it's going to be awesome," says Caps defenseman Karl Alzner of the impending game in Baltimore. "We've heard that the fan support there has been great with the TV ratings and stuff. Obviously they're watching us and enjoying what we've been doing. I think we're all pretty pumped up to get out there and show them what we can do.
"Hopefully, we have a good game. I heard the rink has some good history there. It had an American League team back in the day. That will be exciting to see. It's different than what we're used to, but it's fun to change it up."
Among all Capitals in camp this fall, only 39-year-old right wing Mike Knuble has played in the Baltimore barn. Knuble skated a couple of games there back in the mid-1990s when he was toiling for the AHL's Adirondack Red Wings.
"I have played in Baltimore, against the Baltimore Bandits when I was with the Adirondack Red Wings," recalls Knuble. "I played a couple of games there; one or two. I remember it needed work then. We got dressed in like an actors's studio. It was like an actors' room, it had lights all around the mirrors like they need for make-up. It was the spring of '96 when I played there last."
The Caps have a seven-game exhibition slate spread out over 13 days. Monday was Washington’s third day of practice in preparation for Tuesday’s pre-season opener. The Nashville game starts a set of three games in four nights, all of them on the road. The Caps visit Columbus on Wednesday and Chicago on Friday.
At this stage of camp, players are generally anxious to go up against other NHL clubs.
“I think guys want to play against other teams because they want to hit hard,” says Boudreau. “When we played the rookie game [last Thursday in Philadelphia], a couple of the guys said the third period was more intense. Even though we were practicing hard [during rookie camp], they didn’t want to hurt guys they got to know and like. They might have been their roommate, but they might have been on the opposite [camp] team.”
Michal Neuvirth figures to get the start for Washington against the Predators. He shouldered the lion’s share of the Caps’ netminding chores last season, winning 27 games in the process. But the off-season signing of veteran free agent Tomas Vokoun appears to relegate Neuvirth to a back-up role; on paper, anyway.
“Anything can happen,” says Neuvirth. “I still want to be the No. 1 guy. That’s my goal. I [was] last year and I still think I can improve this year.”
Each of Washington’s vaunted “Young Guns” foursome of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green is expected to suit up for Tuesday’s pre-season opener in Baltimore. Washington will be bringing along a veteran group of forwards and a more youthful blueline corps.
Nashville’s roster for Tuesday includes Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne and a pair of former Capitals. Defenseman Tyler Sloan played all 99 of his NHL games in a Caps’ sweater over a span of the last three seasons. Center Kyle Wilson made his NHL debut with Washington in 2009-10, getting into a pair of contests. Both Sloan and Wilson inked pacts with the Preds as free agents over the summer.
Predators head coach Barry Trotz was a Skipjacks assistant coach in 1990-91 and 1991-92. He took over as the team’s head coach in 1992-93, the final season of affiliation between the Capitals and the Skipjacks.
Nashville general manager David Poile preceded George McPhee in the GM’s chair in Washington, holding down the post from Aug. 30, 1982 to June 9, 1997. Poile presided over the Caps-Skipjacks affiliation in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he hired Trotz to coach in Baltimore. Poile and Trotz have been the only men to serve in their respective positions in Nashville’s franchise history. The Predators opened for NHL business at the outset of the 1998-99 campaign.
“[The Predators] know Barry Trotz coached in Baltimore,” says Boudreau, “and they’re going to be playing extra special hard for him for his return to there. It should make for a special night.”