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Washington Capitals are back on ice, but their level of play hasn’t yet returned

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George McPhee was uptight. And very happy.

He was relieved. And nervous.

And the game was still more than an hour away.

“It just feels good to be working again,” McPhee said while sitting a few yards from the Verizon Center ice on Tuesday night before his 16th home opener as the Washington Capitals’ general manager. “It’s really thrown me off, messed with my sleep patterns. You get used to the rhythms of the season, staying up late, watching games. Now you’re going to bed at 10 o’clock and getting up early. It doesn’t feel right at this time of year.”

He smiled. “Being able to get up with the kids and spending more time at home is nice for a while but . . .” He shrugged. “I’ve been used to doing it one way for a long time now.”

Like all hockey people, McPhee was thrilled to have a hockey game to go to or play in or to watch on TV for that matter. But the sprint-like nature of the 48-game schedule brought on by the lockout — not to mention an opening night loss in Tampa on Saturday — left him already concerned. Even on a night when his team was playing the Winnipeg Jets, generally considered one of the bottom five teams in the league, McPhee was worried.

Justifiably, as it turned out. The Caps looked lackluster for most of the night en route to a 4-2 loss to the Jets.

“This is really different and it’s really difficult,” he said. “We’re going to find ourselves going from trying to get ourselves in rhythm to playing games that matter for the playoffs in no time. I think the shorter season helps the teams that aren’t as good. If you’re playing golf against Rory McIlroy, have you got a better chance to win if you play three holes or if you play 18 holes? I think we have a good team. I’d rather play all 18 holes.”

Because hockey fans are the most forgiving in all of sports, the building was packed with red-clad fans — despite glitches with the new ticketing system — for the opening faceoff. They were loud and happy for much of the first period, especially when a beautiful pass from Nicklas Backstrom caromed off the skate of Matt Hendricks and behind Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec for a 1-0 lead. It quickly got quiet though after the Jets scored two power-play goals.

That made five power-play goals surrendered in four periods, which, if you are scoring at home or anyplace else, isn’t good penalty killing. There’s also the issue of taking foolish penalties, which Joel Ward and John Carlson did to set up the first two Winnipeg goals.

It got worse in the second period. The Jets peppered Braden Holtby with 20 shots and the difference in play was reflected in that number — and in the two goals they tacked on for a 4-1 lead. The fact that the Caps are a team in transition, going from Dale Hunter’s dump-and-chase style to new Coach Adam Oates’s more aggressive approach, is something everyone knew would take time for the players to get comfortable trying to execute.

That’s another face of lockout life: no training camp to install a new system (the Caps are one of four teams with new coaches), no exhibition games to work out the kinks and only 48 games to get their act together and secure a playoff spot.

The one bright spot in the first 40 minutes was Hendricks, who not only scored his team’s only goal until the game was out of hand but started a fight with the Jets’ Jim Slater as the buzzer sounded to end the second period, apparently figuring he had to do something to give his team some life.

“I figured, why not?” Hendricks said. “I was hoping to get the crowd going, the bench going, get some energy in the building.” He smiled wanly. “That’s why it [fighting] is part of hockey.”

The only problem with Hendricks’s strategy was that it took the Caps’ best player — at least on this night — off the ice for the first five minutes of the final period. The Caps had a brief power play early; a great opportunity in front for Jay Beagle that was snatched out of the air by Pavelec and another power play with 9 minutes 3 seconds left that kept the fans in their seats long enough to see Hendricks get into a second fight, this one with Chris Thorburn. He managed to wrestle him to the ice, meaning he was responsible for the three loudest roars of the night — one for the lone goal, two for his pugilistic victories.

All that meant was that Caps are 2-0 in fights this season. Small consolation now that they are 0-2 in the standings for the first time since 1996-97.

On the one hand, it is only two games. On the other hand, to paraphrase Yogi Berra, this is a hockey season in which it is going to get late very early.

“I don’t want to say it was a lackluster effort,” Hendricks said, choosing his words carefully. “But we’ve got to stay out of the [penalty] box and do a better job on the penalty kill.” He sighed. “Tomorrow we’re back in here and back to the drawing board.”

As McPhee well knew even before the Tuesday travesty unfolded, the Caps need to get from the drawing board to the ice very quickly.

For previous columns by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/
feinstein
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