- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2011

Jeff Halpern’s happy to be back in training camp with his hometown Capitals, but that wasn’t anywhere near his mind when he got to the rink. He and his teammates knew what was coming: a grueling, timed conditioning test on the first day of training camp.

“They’ve been on high alert with what we’re going to do,” strength coach Mark Nemish warned earlier in the week.

It wasn’t a surprise; many players got a taste of the drills during informal workouts in recent weeks. But then came the real thing: 900 feet of skating from goal line to goal line and back four times and another sprint to the red line. And they had to do it five different times.

Welcome back, campers.

“I ran it every Wednesday in the summer, and it was tough then and it still sucks now,” Brooks Laich said. “It’s really, really nice to have it over with, but it’s a good test.”

The emotional and physical grind of an 82-game regular season will wind up being the real barometer, but Saturday’s pain and suffering exercise was a chance to get rolling and get serious very early.

This was the first time the Caps did this kind of conditioning test on the first day of camp under coach Bruce Boudreau, who ran the idea by Nemish and trainer Greg Smith before putting the players on “high alert.”

“I’ve always thought the best way to test conditioning is on ice,” Boudreau said. “When I played they’d do running tests, biking tests, but the best test is on the ice, because that’s where we work.”

Hockey games don’t usually involve this kind of back-and-forth skating — not quite like this. More than a couple players were huffing and puffing by the fourth or fifth time, as they were forced to take just 90-second breaks in between.

It wasn’t exactly like Herb Brooks’ suicide sprints from the 1980 U.S. hockey team that were made famous by the movie “Miracle” and the sound of Kurt Russell yelling “Again!” in a dark arena while blowing a whistle. But it was inspired by that.

Caps general manager George McPhee played under Brooks, so it seemed natural to use the test invented by Jack Blatherwick to skate 4½ lengths of the ice in under two minutes.

“There’s no place to hide. You can certainly see who’s in shape and who isn’t,” McPhee said. “It gives players an objective to work for and they all seem to stress about it for a couple weeks before camp and once they do it there is a bit of relief.”

Laich insisted the threat of a test like this didn’t affect his preparation, but the versatile forward is known for his workout regimen. But that didn’t stop Boudreau from yelling to his players — “Let’s see what you got!” — before they took off down the ice.

And the coach didn’t hesitate to point out to Alex Ovechkin when he was stopping a foot short of the goal line.

“As a hockey player, we all try to get the edge somehow,” Boudreau said. “But it was on all drills. If they were not doing exactly what I wanted them to do, we were stopping them and making them do it right.”

Players are talking up the idea of accountability — and it started with the first practice sessions and sprints of the new season. Marcus Johansson said coaches “were killing us out there.” Troy Brouwer said the test left him feeling “miserable.” But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“I think a lot of us felt it was extremely hard. But it’s good. It’s good for us to get that kind of pace going early and test ourselves,” defenseman Mike Green said. “I think it’s important that we, and management and the coaching staff addressed that we were going to be the best conditioned team, and we definitely got a taste of that today.”

Attention to detail is no joke — and it’s something the Caps hope lasts until the spring.

“It’s about practicing right. If you do all those things right and play 200 feet, then the results will be there,” McPhee said. “We’re always trying to find ways to improve. As a team we’re trying to find what we can do to progress. There’s more of an emphasis on playing the game right and if we play the game right we won’t break down in the playoffs. We’re learning how to do it.”

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