ARLINGTON, Va. – Alex Ovechkin celebrated his 26th birthday on Saturday by reporting for a challenging early morning conditioning skate, giving the start of the Washington Capitals’ training camp a more serious tone.
At least until Nicklas Backstrom squirmed under the media scrum speaking with Ovechkin and hit his surprised captain with a shaving cream pie.
The serious spirit was dissolved by Ovechkin’s grin. “That’s two times,” he cried. Earlier in the day, Russian teammate Alexander Semin had found him with another birthday surprise.
The night before, Ovechkin threw out the first pitch at a Baltimore Orioles game, wearing a jersey with his No. 8—the same number as Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. Now he was eager to embrace his new teammates.
“I’m very excited. I think our team did a great job in signing free agents and making trades,” Ovechkin said.
After Washington was swept in the second round of the playoffs last spring by Tampa Bay, general manager George McPhee aggressively sought to augment his core players.
The Capitals signed defenceman Roman Hamrlik, right-winger Joel Ward, goalie Tomas Voukon and centre Jeff Halpern as free agents and traded for forward Troy Brouwer.
Owner Ted Leonsis is clearly satisfied with the work the team had done this summer.
“I had a good off-season. I think George had a really good off-season. And as I said, there’s not another dollar to spend, there’s not another ticket to sell. It’s all up to the organization now to be very, very focused and improve upon last year. But there’s not much that we have left to do in management,” Leonsis said.
“It’s now up to the players and coaches and I think they’ve all internalized that. The fan base is built. The team is rebuilt. We’re ready to go.”
Ovechkin said the new players will aid in the goal of winning the Stanley Cup.
“I think the guys coming to the team—they’re experienced. They know how to play. They’ve played in the playoffs. They’re going to be our leaders anyway,” Ovechkin said. “They penalty kill. They’ll score goals. We’ll see how it goes.”
The oldest of the Capitals, 39-year-old Mike Knuble was pleased with how he did in the conditioning drills and likes the new acquisitions and the mature attitude they’ve brought.
“Every year since I’ve been here it’s just a little less loose. When guys are younger, you give them a little less leeway for mistakes—on and off the ice,” Knuble said. “We don’t let things slide. The looseness is going away. It’s about winning games—and winning games in March.”
Halpern, who signed with Washington as an undrafted free agent in 1999, grew up in the area, played with the team for six seasons and has now returned.
“The organization is at a whole new level,” he said. “If you look around the league, you’re not going to find too many teams with the top-end talent that this team has.”
The 35-year-old has played with Dallas, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles and Montreal since leaving the Capitals. He signed here again with a singular aim.
“This is the best chance I’ve had to win a Cup,” Halpern said.
There wasn’t all good news for the Capitals. Defenceman Tom Poti, hampered last season with a groin injury, failed his physical. “We’ll try a different program to see if we can him back to 100 per cent,” McPhee said.
Even though the team misses Poti, Ovechkin likes what he’s seen so far.
“We’re hungry. They’re hungry. We’re going to get hungry like a team,” Ovechkin said.
“Last year, everybody can’t wait until the playoffs start. This year, everybody can’t wait until the season starts. It’s always hard when you finish a season early. You’re learning. You take some experience—the bad ones and the good ones. You look forward. It’s not like soccer—the World Cup—when you lose and you have to wait four years.”
Washington opens the pre-season Tuesday against Nashville in Baltimore.