- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 20, 2006

It wasn’t exactly a festive mood for the Washington Capitals yesterday at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, but it wasn’t a wake. There was no feeling of remorse, as there often has been in years past when the team choked down the stretch and spent the summer trying to explain what happened.

The Caps packed their bags yesterday and bailed out of the practice rink for the summer and probably for the last time. This fall they will move to their new $42 million practice facility in Arlington, although it probably won’t be ready by the time training camp opens in September.

But yesterday the mood was definitely that of a team proud of what it accomplished even though it missed the playoffs for the third time in four seasons. It finished 2005-06 with 29 victories and 70 points, both figures higher than most observers expected. Players and coaches made note of that, too.

The personnel arrived at training camp as an odd collection of strangers, the remains of a fire sale during the 2003-04 season that gutted the team, scattering talented but unproductive veterans who lacked chemistry. The players walked away from Piney Orchard yesterday as a team, a tightly knit bunch that showed late in the season it could compete.

That said, some vital personnel cogs are missing. Yesterday’s shopping list, as cited by players, included two or three proven veteran defensemen; a stand-up, physical forward; and some offensive help on the right side. There was also the unanimous feeling that the team should re-sign backup goalie Brent Johnson before the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent is lured elsewhere.

Coach Glen Hanlon refused to be drawn into the personnel issue, saying his job was to take the players turned over to him by general manager George McPhee and coach them. McPhee was not present at the breakup meeting.

“My responsibility is to make it perfectly clear to everyone in the organization how we play, then the singers sing and the dancers dance,” Hanlon said. “Then the scouts have a clear vision of what type of player is needed.”

Said captain Jeff Halpern: “The biggest thing that was accomplished this year was a framework was put in place, something you can build on. A couple years ago [in the 2003-04 season] there was nothing steady to lean on. Olie Kolzig is always unbelievable, so between him and [Johnson] we had a chance to win every night. … We have a lot of the big pieces in place, the framework.”

Hanlon and Halpern agree that the primary goal this season was to re-establish the Caps’ reputation as a tough, gritty, in-your-face club that would work the opposition to death. The two said this was accomplished, citing 41 one-goal games as proof the club can stay with the opposition, that it just doesn’t have the firepower or expertise on defense to get over the hump.

“We achieved a lot more than people thought we would,” said center Dainius Zubrus, whose face bore scars from getting up close and personal against Tampa Bay in Tuesday night’s 4-1 victory. “Nobody gave us any credit before the season, but if you look back, especially in the second half, I don’t think we were a lot of fun to play against. We didn’t make the playoffs, but the team’s identity is back. We’re back to what we used to be, and that’s the main thing.”

As for his left wing, Alex Ovechkin, even Zubrus is somewhat surprised by the rookie’s 106-point performance even though the center played against him last season in Russia.

“He definitely showed more than what I thought he would,” Zubrus said. “I told him if he came in and scored 30, 35 goals, it would be a great season. He had 52. What’s better than great? In my opinion, he should at least be a nominee for the Hart Trophy [as league MVP].”

As for Ovechkin, he masterfully and perhaps purposefully continued to butcher the English language, knowing it would draw a laugh, and it did. He is one of the best PR tools the club has ever had.

“It was one of my best seasons,” he said, acknowledging it was also his first in the NHL. “Right now I can’t believe this season go so fast, can’t believe it’s gone. I know when I came here we have young team, and this is just the beginning. When I go home, I remember [it seems like] I just come here and meet the guys, and right now I’m saying goodbye and see you next season. It’s quack,” he said, then caught himself: “Quick.”

Training camp is only 41/2 months down the road.

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