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‘You never know’

During Halpern’s rookie season, Ulf Dahlen pulled him aside to deliver an important message: “You never know when you have a good chance at winning a Cup,” Halpern recalled.

Now 35 years old after a tour of four other NHL teams, the ex-Caps captain sees this as his best chance to do just that.

On paper, it’s hard to doubt the depth of two goaltenders with proven success, seven defensemen with plenty of experience and at least three lines that can score with reliability. And don’t doubt the desire, either, after how things went last year.

“They’re a group that wants to win, believe me,” Knuble said. “People that think they don’t, they’re vastly mistaken and they don’t know them.”

National analysts are mixed on whether this is “the year.” Emrick thinks the Caps can again finish atop the Eastern Conference in the regular season, while Adam Proteau of The Hockey News wrote that this is the time for Washington to “put up or blow up.”

When the Caps were eliminated by Tampa Bay, some expected Boudreau to be handed a pink slip. It’s fair to reason that without a deep run in 2012, the popular coach could be in trouble.

That’s added pressure on a group that is already feeling the weight of expectations. Boudreau won’t be the only one whose seat is hot if things don’t go well.

“Let’s wait to see what happens in the playoffs,” TSN analyst Bob McKenzie said. “They can’t really prove what they’ve got to prove until the playoffs.”

Leonsis came out recently and said the Caps need to make sure they remember the regular season is important, too. But more than anything else, it’s a means to an end getting into the top eight in the East to exorcise the demons.

This is the one shot, the one opportunity to put it all to rest.

“If they don’t step up now and play the game at a high level,” McKenzie said, “then one could suggest that they never will.”