Over the past couple weeks, the Washington Capitals played seven games that don't count. Ice conditions for the Baltimore Hockey Classic made that game hard to judge, and coach Bruce Boudreau sprinkled in varying degrees of NHL lineups on other nights.
But with Sunday's preseason finale against the Chicago Blackhawks behind them, the Caps are finally ready for the real stuff to start. The intensity ramped up in recent games as a group of mostly veterans started to get into gear.
"I think it's natural," defenseman Mike Green said Friday. "Guys are getting ready to actually play and get focused on the season. I feel like training camp is one thing, and once the season starts, you change your mind."
At times during the preseason, the Caps looked sluggish and sloppy, particularly in the defensive zone. Last week in Nashville, the breakdowns led directly to goals, and players cited a lack of communication. Friday at home against Buffalo, there were plenty of miscues and some bad bounces, but the Caps managed to get a win.
The final two preseason games featured pretty close to what Washington's lineup will be Saturday night when it opens the season at Verizon Center against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Of course, there's still a week's worth of practice to fine-tune some aspects — such as defensive-zone coverage and the power play.
"Things are starting to come together a little bit," right wing Joel Ward said. "We've been working hard and still trying to execute a few things, but you're not going to play a flawless game, a perfect game. We've still got a little bit of work to do."
The power play has been a particular point of contention for the Caps, though there were many different combinations and machinations during the preseason. Success wasn't rampant, but Boudreau expressed some optimism late last week about the maligned man advantage.
"It's getting more and more to the system of being on the power play that we're going to want to see," he said.
The Caps generally had trouble developing a rhythm on offense. But they showed recently a better commitment to crashing the net, which could be a good sign of things to come.
"The pucks aren't going to go in from one-timers anymore," Green said. "They're going in from rebounds, and you have to get to those gray areas to make sure that we're putting those in."
And when offensive dynamo Alex Ovechkin is talking about needing to "pay more attention to details in the D-zone," it's worth noting — especially after last year's success built on defense.
There are a few small issues to work out, such as Boudreau pointing out that goaltender Tomas Vokoun and his teammates had miscommunications a few times Friday.
"Some goalies want us to get in front of the puck and block everything, whereas others like to see everything," defenseman Karl Alzner said. "That's just a little bit of a learning curve."
The entire preseason represents a bit of a learning curve, especially with new players such as Vokoun, Ward and forward Troy Brouwer trying to blend in with this group.
It was a chance, forward Matt Hendricks said, to "get the cobwebs out."
And while players have said that there's still room for improvement with the exhibition season over, there is also plenty of reason for optimism.
"I don't know if it's progressed completely to wherever you want it to be until, who knows, Christmas, when you've got a lot of new guys vying for it," Boudreau said. "But it's progressed. It's gotten better and better, which I think is natural from the start of camp to now.
"I assume we're going to continue to get better."
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