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Caps players must get into shape quickly

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Karl Alzner and his fellow players skating in Calgary last week tried to turn up the intensity from typical, informal workouts during the NHL lockout in an attempt to simulate the regular season. They skated hard and pressed on workouts.

It didn't end well.

"By the end of the week we were all pretty gassed," the Washington Capitals defenseman said. "It just goes to show you that there's nothing quite the same as actually playing the game."

Many more NHL players will be reminded very soon of the substantial difference between the offseason and training camp. Given that camps around the league aren't expected to last more than a week, there are plenty of concerns about injuries and gearing up too fast for the shortened 2013 season.

"It being such a physical sport and contact and everything, there's lots," Alzner said. "First of all, there's groins and hip flexors. You don't want to really overdo it, but you're going to have to and just make sure you watch that.

"Also there's just mentally when you're on the ice, you haven't been having to worry about someone coming to hit you or anything and you don't have to brace yourself in practice or anything. I noticed I did get hit one time when we were having a little scrimmage, just a little fun hit, and I was like, 'I don't remember this hurting as much as it does.'"

Some players spent the lockout playing overseas. Captain Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom recently returned from their stint with Dynamo Moscow in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League.

Most, however, remained in North America, deciding to skate in groups to stay in shape. But that's hardly a perfect strategy.

"There's that base shape, but everyone will tell you that game shape is a completely different thing," Caps right wing Troy Brouwer said. "That's what this [weeklong] camp is for. I'm sure [coach Adam Oates is] going to have us going pretty hard."

NHL camps are expected to open over the weekend, pending ratification of the new collective bargaining agreement. But once that's done, the clock starts ticking toward a 48- or 50-game regular season, and there's not much time in there to ramp up.

Most players aren't concerned.

"I think everybody's been pretty up-tempo through these last three or four months. I don't think it's going to take a whole lot," forward Matt Hendricks said. "I think guys are probably in shape and ready to go. I know here in Minnesota we've been working hard four or five times a week. We're doing as much as we can without burning ourselves out in the process."

Alzner, defenseman Jeff Schultz and others in Calgary took a week-and-a-half off for Christmas break and then did a little of that burning out last week. Those who remained in the D.C. area and skated at Kettler Capitals Iceplex got on the ice a few times a week and worked out with trainers, too.

"I think we did a really good job at trying to do stuff that will keep us in game shape and at game speed," ex-Caps and current New York Rangers center Jeff Halpern said. "For myself, between skating with those guys, skating with Princeton, skating up in New York over the last four months, I think my legs are good."

Halpern said the biggest difference might be just getting used to the pace of games with 10 skaters on the ice; that's a mental adjustment for him with new Rangers teammates. Meanwhile, the Caps will have to learn Oates' system on the fly.

It's a disadvantage Washington has compared to most teams.

"That is a concern. Especially at this time of the year, guys are going to be so excited and they're going be flying around and make sure that there's lots of energy and lots of excitement surrounding our team," Brouwer said. "But we can't forget that we do have to digest a new system, to make sure that we're learning while still having that excitement at the same time. It might be a little bit difficult to balance at the beginning."

Health has to be balanced, too. Forward Jason Chimera said that with 48 or 50 games compared to 82, "it's going to be full-throttle right to the end," which means an injury that might've been considered short-term in a full season could have a bigger impact.

Defenseman Tom Poti's groin injury, which also included a fractured pelvis, kept him out of NHL action since January 2011. A forgotten member of the Caps, he said Monday he will be at training camp and hopes to get a shot to prove he's healthy.

Even if it's not so much of a proving ground for players who are healthy and seeking to get in shape, training camp is the start of a major process to get back into the swing of games.

"Hopefully training camp helps us a lot, but I don't know. It won't be the same," Alzner said. "It'll take a few games, I would imagine, for everybody to get the rust off."

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