- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

The puck drops on Year 29 for the Washington Capitals at MCI Center tonight, starting a season with the possibility of unusual promise and high expectations.
There was a practice yesterday, just 50 minutes of work but high-spirited, virtually non-stop with total involvement. Nobody was complaining, which in itself is noteworthy.
"We're a happy team everybody's smiling in the dressing room," chortled defenseman Calle Johansson, who is normally worried about something. "I'm excited, and I mean that."
The first of 82 games begins shortly after 7p.m., the only meeting of the season against David Poile's Nashville Predators. After that, the Caps start an eight-game road swing, tying the franchise record for most consecutive games away from home.
"I'm not nervous, I'm looking forward to this," said Bruce Cassidy, who officially becomes the 12th coach in Caps history when the game starts. "I'll be a bit anxious, but I won't be nervous."
Steve Eminger, the 18-year-old rookie defenseman who was playing junior hockey only a few months ago, said he wasn't nervous, either as of yesterday. Then he added, "The game, well, I don't know "
The team has been rebuilt from the disappointing one that failed to make the playoffs last season despite the sixth highest payroll in the NHL, $54million. General manager George McPhee has brought in younger, faster bodies to replace the eight players aged 33 or older who were Caps last season. At the same time, he said, payroll has dropped to less than $48million.
There are standouts at most positions, starting with Olie Kolzig in goal to forwards Peter Bondra and Jaromir Jagr, to defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who led all blue liners in the league last season with 26 goals.
And there are question marks. Two key players, Johansson (shoulder surgery) and center Jeff Halpern (reconstructive knee surgery, groin injury), will be watched carefully. Another player, center Dainius Zubrus, has practiced only three times since ending his holdout. Still another, right wing Mike Grier, joined the team Wednesday in a trade from Edmonton.
"A healthy Halpern gives us a strong work-ethic type of guy," said Cassidy, who is counting on Halpern's third line to get things going when opponents are able to shut down the top two.
"I'm pretty excited, but above all my groin injury has turned into just muscle soreness. Every day it's gotten better," said Halpern. He said his knee felt the best it has felt in months early in camp, and then the groin popped, limiting his activity.
Johansson, 40 games short of being the all-time leader in Caps games played, has been checked three times by shoulder specialists and cleared, but it's something else that has him raring to go.
"[The shoulder] feels great because we have a good team, a great team here," he said. "The only thing we're missing is [holdout] Andrei Nikolishin, and hopefully we'll sign him and be even better. We're absolutely ready to go. It's been a good camp; we look quick, fast, even though we started slow, a little tentative. We've come a long way in the last week and a half."
Said Cassidy: "The talent level here is very good; if you can bring out that closeness, you're really onto something. I've always felt closeness was a big part of every team. When guys respect one another and like one another on the ice, it shows. Guys are sticking up for one another, and that's good."


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