Capitals united in misery?

Alex Ovechkin catches a baseball before the Orioles game against the Los Angeles Angels in...

Alex Ovechkin catches a baseball before the Orioles game against the Los Angeles Angels in Baltimore on Sept. 16, 2011. (REUTERS/Joe Giza)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:09 AM ET

ARLINGTON, Va. -- The lung-squeezing on-ice fitness test endured by the Washington Capitals on their first day of training camp has as much to do with what they did physically as individuals during the summer as how they will do mentally as a group during the winter.

The five sets of sprints of 900 feet (four times down and back the length of the rink and back to the red line) with two-minute intervals between was, on the surface, a test to see how hard the players had worked during the summer. The players' times for the sprints were recorded to monitor their fitness level.

The players were given fair warning during the summer and were on "high alert" the test was coming.

But Capitals general manager George McPhee, while watching one of his groups skate at the club's practice facility, said he saw the exercise as more than just that.

He told QMI Agency Sunday he didn't think conditioning was a weak point or a concern for the Caps.

So, why do it?

"You're always trying to find new ways to do things, ways to be fresh, ways to bring your team together. A skate like that sort of sets the tone for camp. It brings your group together," said McPhee, who knows something about that.

Think of Herb Brooks, if the killer skate in the movie "Miracle," was accurately portrayed, screaming, "Again!"

McPhee played for parts of three seasons for Brooks when he coached the New York Rangers. (There's another connection, too. Jack Blathewick, the Caps' physiologist, worked with Brooks going back to that 1980 Olympic team.)

McPhee knows what can bring a team together.

Misery.

Like how the great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s were united in their dislike for coach Scotty Bowman?

"Yeah," said McPhee. "Herb Brooks was the same way. We had some horrendous skates with Herb. But you felt great when you got through them and felt like you accomplished something and had a goal to prepare for. Anything to have a pretty positive effect on the camp. Everybody seems to be talking about it and the players, as much as they dread those things, they don't mind hard work and structure. They'll whine about it from time and time but they like it.

"I think we're all really pleased with it. There was no place to hide out there. We wanted to try different things to see what works for the team."

Caps coach Bruce Boudreau even told captain Alex Ovechkin to toe the line after he pulled up short on his first sprint.

"Yeah, the first two times I was flying, so I thought, 'Oh, it's going to be easy,' but after that I couldn't feel my legs," said Ovechkin, "and I said, "Jesus Christ, three more.'"

So, a more business-like tone off the bat.

Every year at this time, it's the same question: has this extremely talented group of players figured out what it takes to win in the playoffs?

They were stunned by the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens two years ago. Last spring, with a banged up blueline corps, they were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.

"We're not going to sit and make excuses for anything. I don't think we lost that series because we had injured players. I think we lost that series because we got outhustled and outworked by a very good hockey team," said forward Brooks Laich. "That's not easy to say."

You have to believe if the Caps don't turn potential to production this spring, that will be it for coach Bruce Boudreau.

McPhee has shuffled the deck around the nucleus of forwards Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and defencemen Mike Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner and goaltender Michal Neuvirth. Gritty forwards Troy Brouwer, just 26, and Joel Ward, along with veteran Jeff Halpern, were brought in, as was veteran defenceman Roman Hamrlik. The most interesting move might prove to be goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who, if you haven't noticed, has the second-best save percentage since the lockout (OK, so he's played only five playoffs games in his career).

He was grabbed for a bargain $1.5 million for one year after the Caps split with Semyon Varlamov, who was looking for a fresh start after Michal Neuvirth surpassed him.

"We actually weren't looking for a goaltender," McPhee said. "We didn't want to trade Varlamov. They put a gun to our head and basically said they weren't coming back. When someone doesn't want to play for you, you move them along. We were prepared to move ahead with Neuvirth and (Braden) Holtby. We think they are both really talented players with lots of upside.

"But after the first day of free agency, we recognized there might be an opportunity there with Vokoun. We didn't have a lot of money left to spend, but we made him the offer and thought it would be really good for the organization if we brought this veteran in for one year. It worked. We got lucky."

Luck never hurts.

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