‘Transition Game’ Chapter Three: Capitals ‘Stay Angry’ In Training Camp

Many Washington Capitals fans may know Ted Starkey as a prominent voice on the Caps beat, but other than his immense talent of expressing himself in 140 characters or less on Twitter, Starkey is a veteran of the hockey press and beyond. Now the Web Editor for Tbe Washington Times, Starkey has left his mark on several high-profile organizations such as AOL Fanhouse, USA Hockey and even the NFL’s Buffalo Bills.

The Caps’ 2010-11 season was definitely a soap opera of sorts (and HBO solidified that with their four-part miniseries, “24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road To The Winter Classic”) and Starkey realized that chronicling it even further would make for a compelling read. Enter “Transition Game,” Starkey’s first book which takes an in-depth look at last season. Starkey leaves nothing uncovered as every up, down and in-between is examined.

Below is a sample chapter from “Transition Game.” With training camp not too far away, take a look back at last year’s training camp and relive a re-energized Caps looking to “Stay Angry” after a bitter postseason disappointment. Starkey is currently taking preorders of the book, which should be released this fall. Email Capitalsbook@aol.com to reserve your copy.

At the end of a long summer in which the team had to digest the bitter pill of a first-round exit from the playoffs, the Capitals reconvened at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington on September 18 to begin what they hoped would be a long season extending deep into spring.

The last time the team was together at the suburban Virginia complex had been four months before. Washington’s players met a day after its Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens to meet with the media, their coaches to get evaluated and the tough task of packing up their gear and belongings before splitting up for the summer.

The team also had the difficult task of trying to explain to reporters just how its 121-point Presidents’ Trophy season came unraveled in just five short days, losing a 3-1 series edge against the eighth-seeded Habs with three straight losses.

The modern twin rink facility on top of a shopping mall in Arlington that opened in 2006 is one of the best in the NHL and has a lot of bells and whistles, but it certainly lacked what the team was really looking for that April day: a reset button to erase the previous season’s meltdown.

“They got to camp, and nobody wanted to be at camp, they wanted to be in the playoffs,” the team’s then- Vice President of Communications Nate Ewell recalled. “It was just all just long preamble that you had to get through.”

Reporters certainly got the vibe from the players that unlike previous campaigns in Washington that had seen some Hart Trophy-winning performances from their captain and three Southeast Division titles and a Presidents’ Trophy, the regular season was just an 82-game grind to get to before they could try and focus on having some playoff success.

“I think the Caps were totally focused on what they could do to be better once the playoffs started,” Ed Frankovic of WNST in Baltimore said of the team’s mood as camp opened. “It was clear that the regular season didn’t matter much to them.

“George McPhee said that to me on Media Day. He said the only thing that mattered to him was a long playoff run. So if the man at the helm is saying that, then the players were likely thinking the same way.”

But, of course, before you can actually qualify for the playoffs, there is the long marathon of camp, preseason and regular season games.

So the team returned to work wearing T-shirts that said “Stay Angry.”

“That’s the way everyone feels about the way things ended last season,” McPhee said of the shirts. “For six-and-a-half months, we had a fabulous season, and in five days, we lost it.”

“I think it’s done,” Ovechkin said of the Montreal series. “It’s a new season. No looking back. … It was a long summer. I missed hockey.”

On the ice, though, the Capitals were certainly going to have some holes to fill over the course of the season. With the departures of Eric Belanger to Phoenix and Brendan Morrison to Calgary, Washington’s biggest question was who would pivot the second line on the league’s top offense from the year before.

There were three candidates to take the role -a veteran, a young rookie and a player that was looking to stick in the NHL from his time in Hershey.

Tomas Fleischmann had signed a one-year deal with the Caps in the offseason to avoid arbitration, but the rumors that he was on the trading block since signing his one-year, $2.6 million deal certainly suggested that he might not be the team’s first choice to fill the role.

Fleischmann had been part of the Capitals organization since the team acquired him by sending Robert Lang to the Detroit Red Wings in 2004. The Czech native played with the team’s former AHL affiliate, the Portland Pirates, then the Hershey Bears, before getting his first shot with the Capitals in 2005.

Despite spending six seasons with Washington, Fleischmann certainly seemed to be odd man out, as the team was shopping around for a defenseman, and he had been linked to rumors of a trade for most of the summer.

Marcus Johansson, the team’s first-round choice in the 2009 NHL Draft, had impressed in rookie camp in July, but at the young age of 19, was adjusting to the smaller North American rink and the increased size and strength of NHL competition.

“It’s a more straight-ahead game [in North America],” Johansson told Sam Chamberlain of TBD.com early in camp. “You have to go right for the net. You have less time on the puck in the neutral zone. I still feel a little lost out there, but it’s getting better. … There’s not much else to do [to get used to the ice]. You just have to go out and play on it.”

The last candidate for that coveted pivot role was 22-year old Mathieu Perreault, who was part of the Bears’ back-to-back Calder Cup championship teams, and had appeared in 21 games with Washington the year before. The 5’ 9” center looked to earn a full-time spot with the big club after registering better than a point-per-game basis in Hershey the previous season.

But the center spot wasn’t the only one on the Capitals’ roster that was up for grabs.

A forward in Capitals’ camp with no job security was veteran Matt Hendricks, who had been looking for an NHL job after being let go by Colorado during the offseason.

Hendricks – who had played for Bruce Boudreau during the 2006-07 season in Hershey – thought he had solidified an NHL job with the Avalanche after playing in 56 games in 2009-10, registering 25 points and 110 penalty minutes. However, Colorado declined to sign the rugged Minnesota native to a new deal, and let him become an unrestricted free agent.

Instead of coming to a team where he was guaranteed a contract and roster spot, Hendricks had to take his chances and come to Washington’s camp on a professional tryout contract, with no guarantee of actually making the cut – or even getting a contract with the Capitals.

Although Hendricks had the familiarity of having played with several players on Washington’s roster during his stay in Hershey, he still had to try and crack one of the most potent forward corps in the NHL, which certainly wasn’t going to be an easy task.

Defensively, the Capitals still were looking around for the stay-at-home blueliner they coveted after the first-round exit. With the trade market quiet over the summer, Capitals’ General Manager George McPhee had to stand pat with what he had – although that also meant bringing up Karl Alzner and John Carlson to get a shot to play full-time with the Capitals.

One September 21st, Washington signed one of their veteran defensemen to a two-year extension, as Tom Poti was inked to a $5.75-million deal to remain a Cap.

In net, there was no doubt the team was turning the keys of the franchise over to the young tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth, and the coaches would see how the young goalies would adapt to a full season in the NHL as a tandem.

Neuvirth’s spot on the Capitals was cemented when he signed a two-year extension with the club on September 22nd, inking a one-way deal worth $1.15 million – meaning he was paid the same amount of money whether he was playing in Hershey or Washington.

“We’ve been waiting for them to have this opportunity,” McPhee said at the beginning of camp. “We’re very high on both of these guys, and we were very lucky to get these guys when we did. We’ve developed both of them exactly the way we wanted, and part of the reason we signed Jose Theodore was to give ourselves a bridge to this point.”

The only question for the Capitals’ coaching staff was to figure out which of the two young keepers would emerge as the No. 1 starter.

“These guys are young guys, and to ask one of them to shoulder the load for 60 or 70 games — it’s just too much pressure,” McPhee told reporters. “It’s much more preferable to have each of them play 40 games each to start. Now, in the process of doing that, we may find one of them can play 60 or 70 games in a season.”

Four days after veterans reported to camp, Washington played its first game since last year’s playoffs by opening up its preseason slate at Columbus’ Nationwide Arena the night of the 22nd.

In that game – which featured a lot of AHL talent as most of the Capitals’ big names stayed home – Hendricks did a lot to try and earn himself a roster spot. The gritty forward scored a hat trick in a 6-3 Capitals win over the Blue Jackets, and young center Johansson also added a pair of assists and was impressive in his preseason debut.

The beginning of a new season also came the news the following day of something that would certainly make the upcoming season even more unique, as the team would be featured on a reality television series.

With the Capitals slated to play in the Winter Classic in three months’ time, Washington’s rivalry with the Pittsburgh Penguins had piqued the interest of HBO officials of the possibility of doing a reality series featuring the two clubs.

HBO for years had run the successful “Hard Knocks” series, chronicling various NFL teams during training camp, getting an inside look at the coaches, players and management as difficult roster decisions are made. The cameras are granted unprecedented access into the dressing room, training room and homes of the players.

Of course, doing any series featuring two teams heading into the Winter Classic would require having cameras present during regular season practices and games. NHL clubs – already a secretive bunch – would have to give up some of their privacy in order to participate in the “24/7” series.

“To be embedded with two teams during the regular season in a four-week run with two games against each other …  we feel as if we’re going to be able to bring sports fans unprecedented access to the behind-the-scenes of what goes on in a professional sports league,” HBO Sports President Ross Greenburg told reporters.

“That is at the heart what this 24/7 series is all about, to bring you, the viewer, access you’ve never been given before so you understand what it takes to be a professional athlete and compete at this high level.”

With a chance to showcase the sport, the Capitals and Penguins were willing to open up the locker room and let the cameras follow them around for a month for television’s sake and signed up for “24/7: Penguins-Capitals.”

“The meetings I had [with Boudreau] lasted about 10 minutes,” McPhee told reporters. “It’s great for our team and it’s great for our sport. HBO is very good. It’s like I told Bruce and the players, ‘just be yourselves. Don’t worry about whether it’s good TV, just be yourselves, and they’ll make it good TV.'”

“The one thing that I was concerned about was that they would be showing us cutting players because that’s a very personal thing,” Boudreau added. “But I think they’ll be very respectful of what we have to do.”

What was already a large date on the calendar became an even bigger one for Washington, and as if the build-up for the Winter Classic wouldn’t be enough, now HBO would chronicle the month leading up to the game and let fans get an inside look at both clubs.

Despite the NHL ramping up its promotion of its midseason event, there was still a team to set for the regular season. Meaning some important roster decisions had to be made for Opening Night in Atlanta in just two weeks’ time.

Neuvirth, auditioning for the No. 1 role, was solid in a 2-1 win in Nashville in the team’s second pre-season contest on September 25th.

Three days later, in the Caps’ first game at Verizon Center since falling in Game 7 to Montreal, the Capitals got goals from a pair of 19-year-olds – Johansson and Cody Eakin – in a 3-2 win over the Boston Bruins as the battle for the second-line center intensified.

“They [all] are playing pretty well,” Boudreau told reporters after the win. “Every game they are doing something to [make me] sit there at night and go ‘they should stay, they should go, they should stay, they should go.’ … We got another week to make a decision, I would think.”

“As every day goes by, I just feel better,” Johansson said. “I just like to play as much as I can.”

Eakin had been impressive at camp, and made an impression during the first part of camp in adjusting to the NHL level.

“I’m still up in the air about it,” Eakin said after the win over the Bruins. “Sometimes it feels better than other games. Playing in Hershey [during the Calder Cup playoffs the year before] helped me adjust to the pace, the size and speed.

“Every day you’ve got to come to the rink and bring your ‘A’ game. Everyone is fighting for a [roster] spot.”

However, with Eakin’s young age and the depth the Capitals already had at forward, the team opted to return the Winnipeg native to the Western Hockey League’s Swift Current Broncos for the season rather than keep him at the NHL level for the season.

“He had a tremendous training camp,” Boudreau said. “On a different team, in different circumstances, he’d still be here.

“But just from my perspective, having the chance to play my last year of juniors and win the Memorial Cup, that’s the kind of memory that stays with you forever.”

Fighting for an NHL job, Hendricks was doing his best to make the roster, and his strong play in camp and hat trick against the Blue Jackets was rewarded with a two-way contract from the Caps. With the deal in hand, the veteran now had to work on making sure he was playing in Washington – and not Hershey – on Opening Night.

Hendricks certainly made another good impression with coaches in Washington’s fourth preseason game at Boston.

In the late stages of the 3-2 win in Washington, the Bruins’ Gregory Campbell earned a boarding call on Ovechkin in the corner, which drew the ire of the Capitals.

On the opening faceoff in a rematch of the two clubs the next night at TD Garden, Hendricks took the opening faceoff, and immediately threw down his gloves with Campbell to send a message to the Bruins.

“He didn’t need to be told,” Boudreau told Mike Vogel of WashingtonCaps.com of the incident. “He just watched the game [Tuesday] night and knew what he had to do. I thought, ‘What a team thing [to do].’ It was great.”

D.J. King, the new tough guy on the roster, also made an impression on the coaching staff in the home-and-home series with the Bruins, having dropped the gloves against Shawn Thornton in the game in Washington.

“I had told him earlier on, you don’t have to fight in training camp and stuff, but I think he wanted to show his new teammates and the fans that he is not bad at his craft,” Boudreau said. “We never really had that tough, physical presence last year, and he played pretty well too.”

“It’s nice to get the first one out of the way,” King simply said. “It wasn’t midseason form, that’s for sure.”

As the calendar flipped to October, Washington ran its mark to 5-0 in the exhibition season with a win over the Blue Jackets in a game that saw Hendricks go down after a hit from Columbus’ Nate Guenin.

Hendricks was OK, but it set the tone in a feisty game that is often a signature of preseason games with players looking to make an impression on coaches and grab one of the few available roster spots.

“It’s more that they’re getting tired of preseason, they want to start playing something for real,” Boudreau told reporters afterwards. “We can win all the preseason games in a row in the world and in two weeks no one is going to know what our record was in the preseason.”

Two days later, the Caps fell in their final tune-up, a 3-0 loss to the Predators at home, wrapping up the exhibition slate with six days before the opener in Atlanta – and with some tough decisions for the coaches.

“I’m never happy when we lose,” Boudreau said. “You never want to give them an excuse, but at the same time we’re in training camp and it’s probably a good thing we got ours today. It’s one game, and I think all the guys are glad it’s over.”

“A little bit frustrating for us,” Mike Knuble said of the contest. “Our record is pretty good this preseason. I don’t know if we played great all the time, but we had a good record. It’s kind of a sour note to end the preseason on. We did a lot of good things.”

The biggest question facing the coaches of which player of the two young centers – Johansson or Perreault – would earn a roster spot with the Caps. With Fleischmann still on the roster, he would be starting the season as Washington’s second center – at least for the time being.

While the Swede had been impressive, he also was just turning 20 and getting used to the punishing North American style of play. Perreault had some NHL experience, but still needed to prove he could compete at the next level.

And, in the end, Johansson won the battle, earning himself a spot on the opening night roster, while Perreault would begin the season in Chocolatetown.

“It might have been different if we were looking for a number two [center],” Boudreau told reporters. “Matty has more offensive upside, but Marcus has more defensive upside, especially coming from the Swedish League, where they preach defense all the time.

“The first thing that jumps out about Marcus is his speed. In the new NHL, speed is such a weapon, and he can skate while being smart.”

“I had no idea when I came in what would happen today,” Johansson told reporters at the team’s media luncheon. “I didn’t know until Bruce came by and said ‘Welcome to the team.'”

Three had been talk that Johansson had threatened to return to Sweden rather than play in the American Hockey League if he was demoted, but McPhee dismissed that claim.

“He doesn’t have that option,” he said. “That’s our decision,” adding “he has nothing left to learn in Sweden.

“Marcus is an exceptional player. We love the way he thinks the game.”

On the flip side, it meant a trip back to Hershey for Perreault, as the Quebec native would have to bide his time in the minors until a chance to return to Washington opened up.

“It’s tough telling a player he’s not ready,” McPhee said. “It’s the toughest part of the job, and today was as difficult as any day we’ve had.”

The only final bookkeeping before the regular season began was placing Varlamov on injured reserve, allowing veteran goaltender Dany Sabourin to back up Neuvirth in the season opener at Philips Arena against the Atlanta Thrashers.

Varlamov had been battling an injury during training camp, and Neuvirth was impressive in his stead and began his first full NHL season as the team’s top goaltender.

So, five months after seeing their stellar regular season turn south in five days against the Canadiens, Washington had its 23-man roster set and was ready to embark on its 36th season in the National Hockey League, and looking to erase the bitter sting they felt since the final buzzer of Game 7.

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