- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 15, 2011

It was 9:51 on the night of May 4 when the Capitals’ 2010-11 season ended. In the words of strength and conditioning coach Mark Nemish, some “not-too-happy exit meetings” followed the next day before players and coaches went their separate ways for much of the summer.

Each taste of hockey is a chance for coach Bruce Boudreau to feel at home again — like this past week during rookie camp.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to get going again,” he said.

To Boudreau’s delight, he and his team are back on the ice for real starting Saturday as training camp gets under way. There’s plenty of talk about this year bringing a more “serious” tone — but many Caps players have put their skating where their mouths are, putting in extra work in informal skates over the past several weeks.

At first it was Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks and a few others, and then more and more joined.

“With Mark, he does a tremendous job getting us ready physically — in the weight room, on ice, off ice, conditioning on the track,” Hendricks said. “And the way these practices have been going … I think it’s going to help propel us into training camp and into the regular season.”

There have been lighthearted practices and fun, but Nemish has set up benchmarks and testing to keep players on a work plan.

“When you know as a player that theres something like that coming up, I think you train a little bit harder, as opposed to just going on the ice and playing shinny with the guys and goofing around and playing games,” Nemish said. “Theres a bit more of concerted effort to take the time at the end and skate hard.”

On Tuesday, well before the rookies got onto the ice, the veterans were on doing hockey’s equivalent of suicide sprints and more. Hendricks and Mike Knuble called it simply a “good skate.”

That’s the result of them and others — including Alex Ovechkin — working with Nemish to get ready.

“I’m excited, quite frankly, to see the condition of our guys,” Boudreau said. “That’s not to say they’ve been in bad shape before, but they look leaner now than they’ve ever been.”

Preseason game action gets under way Tuesday in Baltimore, though the real games that count don’t start until Oct. 8, when the Caps face the Carolina Hurricanes at Verizon Center. Of course, the real measure of this team making up for its second-round sweep by the Tampa Bay Lightning won’t come until April and May, but Saturday brings another milestone on the journey.

And more chances to talk about what went wrong and how to fix it.

“We owe it to ourselves,” Knuble said. “We all said we were pretty upset after the season and thought we could have achieved more.”

During all these workouts, Boudreau hasn’t had a whole lot of communication with players about what’s coming up and the goals he and his team will set for the upcoming season. They say hello in the morning - but nothing close to the kind of talks they’ll have starting with physicals and meetings Friday.

But the message doesn’t need to be communicated. It got across a long time ago.

“There’s also a feeling around the team that we’re going to do whatever we can to get over whatever humps that we need to get over,” Nemish said. “Getting in here earlier, showing that dedication, showing that kind of team solidarity, I think is part of it.”

Added Hendricks: “There’s a lot of things that we didn’t finish last year that we look forward to building upon this season. I think we got an exciting room; we’ve got a team that’s here working, ready to go, ready to start.”