- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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Know this about the Washington Capitals: they have never been more prepared for a season than this one.
Whether that finally pays off in the spring, who knows; but GM George McPhee and coach Bruce Boudreau left no stone unturned this past summer as they tried to find ways to get this team ready and over the hump.
First, McPhee met individually with key players on the team during the offseason.
"We were looking for ways to improve," McPhee told ESPN.com on Monday night. "We had talked to the group collectively and we had talked to them individually, but I wanted to keep talking to them and get to as many guys as I could."
So much so that he was ready to fly to Russia in July to chat with captain and franchise player Alex Ovechkin.
"I was going to go to Moscow, but he said he'd be in Washington the week I was looking at, so we met in Washington," McPhee said.
"That was an opportunity where Nick was in for Mike's tournament and it worked out really well," McPhee said. "I took a couple of flights, got in for lunch, and it was a good hour-long talk and I was back on the plane. The first thing Mike said was, 'I thought you'd be too busy for this.' And I said, 'Yes, but this is important.' We had a real good talk."
The message to his core players was simple: It's time, take ownership of this team.
"I said, 'When you're young, I can understand that certain things happen, but you guys are mature guys now, you're veterans, it's time,'" McPhee said.
In conjunction with McPhee's approach, Boudreau sent letters to every player during the summer, urging all of them to report in the best shape ever because training camp was going to be harder this year.
"I also sent the letters to our minor-league players," Boudreau told ESPN.com Tuesday. "Every player in the organization was told what was happening."
"We had a real tough training camp, skated them hard, worked them hard, and there were no whimpers and no complaints," added McPhee. "Players like structure. They want it demanding as much as they say they don't. They really do, and we made it that way for them."
Which brings us to what happened during opening week. For opening night, promising young center Marcus Johansson was a healthy scratch, while veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun was stunned not to start. It was especially bitter for Vokoun because he flew his parents, wife and two young daughters to Washington, while a handful of friends came up from Florida.
But the message was simple from Washington's perspective: center Matthieu Perreault and young goalie Michal Neuvirth were being rewarded for excellent training camps.
"Why have training camp if you're not going to reward players that have good camps," McPhee said. "Perreault had a great camp, he's playing. Neuvirth had a great camp, he started. But with Tomas and Michal in terms of the net, the most important thing they should be focusing on is 'let's make the playoffs' and focus on who's starting Game No. 1 in the playoffs. Don't worry about Game No. 1 in the regular season. Tim Thomas didn't start [for] the Bruins last year on opening night. He won a Cup, a Vezina and a Conn Smythe. Not bad."
Vokoun started Monday night and got shelled for five goals on 28 shots. To his credit, he hammered himself after the game, calling his performance "ugly, ugly, ugly," which will win the respect of his coach and teammates.
The bottom line, it's Cup or bust for Washington, and the GM and coach aren't allowing any excuses to enter the picture.
16hScott Burnside and Craig Custance