WASHINGTON - APRIL 17: Nicklas Backstrom #19 (R) of the Washington Capitals scores in overtime and is joined by Mike Knuble #22 (L) and Alex Ovechkin #8 (C) to defeat the Montreal Canadiens 6-5 in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2010 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at the Verizon Center on April 17, 2010 in Washington, DC.. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
It’s been almost six months since the Capitals last played a meaningful hockey game. It’s been almost a year since they opened the 2009-10 season, 373 days since training camp last got underway.
In that time the team has seen new faces arrive (and familiar ones leave). They’ve traded away a captain and anointed a new one. They’ve raised expectations and eyebrows, shattered records, stirred controversy and let a spectacular season peter out in a most unpredictable – and yet somehow familiar – way. The motto has gone from "Get Ready" to "Stay Angry", a noticeable shift embracing the frustration caused by a too-long summer…that ended with another team in red hoisting the Cup.
And while the players and coaches have spent the hot summer months trying to forget, to erase the pain of losing in such a disastrous way, we have spent that time debating what went wrong and how (or if) it can be fixed. We’ve focused on needs at center, deficiencies on defense and potential risks of a young goaltending tandem, on the inability of the team to adjust in the playoffs and the notion that somehow the regular season has lost some of its luster. It’s just the way it goes – those who lived it try to forget it, those who watched it try to make sense of it.
But as hockey makes its long-awaited return to the District this week, I, for one, am putting it all on the back burner.
Because as nice as some of the hockey fixes of the past summer have been, there’s nothing quite like the start of training camp to cure what ails you. Stepping into Kettler on a beautiful Sunday morning I found it nearly impossible to keep the ridiculously goofy smile off my face, because everything was so familiar – like a home away from home for the hockey-obsessed. It’s the little things that you learn to appreciate and hate to miss. It's the smell of the rink, the sound of skates and sticks and pucks, the sight of friendly faces on and off the ice, all welcome signs that hockey is indeed back.
Watching the drills and then the scrimmage that followed, I was reminded not only of the things I loved about hockey but the things we as Caps fans have to look forward to – regardless of how much and how often we pick them apart, it’s hard to deny that we still have one of the most exciting teams in the NHL and much to be excited about. While the regular season no longer means a quest for individual numbers and franchise records, it will definitely be a platform for emerging young talents and a team that seems just inches away from the ultimate goal.
Over the next eight, nine, ten months we’ll have a front row seat to the development of two up-and-coming young defensemen in John Carlson and Karl Alzner and the ongoing duel between Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth for dominance in net. We’ll have a view of potential new Caps like Marcus Johansson and Mathieu Perreault and more time to spend with guys like Andrew Gordon. And we’ll once again be treated to the playmaking skills and vision of Nicklas Backstrom, the speed of Jason Chimera, the finesse of Alexander Semin and Mike Green, the grit of Mike Knuble and Matt Bradley and the pure excellence that is Alex Ovechkin.
We’ll get to see how this team "stays angry" and how they funnel the pain of an early playoff exit into what will hopefully be a much longer run in the postseason. It'll be a rollercoaster ride for sure, as it always seems to be, and perhaps peppered with a few more obstacles to insure the team is truly battle-tested and playoff-ready - but it'll be a ride no one will want to miss.
So there will be time for debating those issues that still plague the team and any new ones that will crop up over the course of the long season. There will be time to dissect every game and every roster move, to break down every quote given by or about the team, the coach, the GM, the fans or the arena food. There are 82 games and hopefully many more playoff matches ahead, and we as fans/critics/analysts/writers/devoted lunatics will take every opportunity to discuss this team and their actions at lengths. It’s what we do.
But for now I choose to set all of that aside, if only for a little while, and embrace the start of camp - the beginning of a new season and a new chance at redemption. Hockey’s back.