Each time Mike Knuble came to training camp or suited up for a preseason game, he would be forced to watch as someone new auditioned for the role he had held the past two seasons with the Washington Capitals: the right wing spot on the top line.
“It’s kinda like going on a date right in front of your old girlfriend. Like, I’m going to try these ones out, you go sit on that table and wait for me while I talk to these girls over here,” Knuble, at age 39 the oldest player on the Capitals’ roster, said with a laugh before taking a more serious tone.
“You catch yourself wondering, does it mean anything?” he added. “But then, you think, what would I do if I’m a coach? If there’s new guys, you’re going to mix them in and see what works, that’s what it’s all about.”
Despite the numerous combinations and possibilities that saw time during camp, it was Knuble skating alongside Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom when the Capitals took to the ice Tuesday after whittling down their roster to the league-maximum 23. By all appearances, that’s where the 15-year veteran will be when the 2011-12 season opens on Saturday against the Carolina Hurricanes.
“I’m happy about that, that was my goal coming back,” Knuble said. “I’ll be honest about that, I want to play with those guys again. If I can’t keep up with them or my play’s holding them back that’s a decision they’ll make down the road. I take it seriously playing with those guys and I’m prepared every game like I’m ready to play with them. I’m not nervous playing with them, I know what to do how I fit in on that line.”
It’s a combination that has been reliable for the Capitals in previous seasons, and it gives Boudreau a bit of familiarity to start the season as he figures out how the team’s new forwards best fit into the lineup. Knuble, meanwhile, is something of an old faithful for the coaching staff.
In his two years as a Capital, Knuble has recorded 53 goals and 40 assists in 148 regular season games, the majority of which were spent on a line with Ovechkin and Backstrom. He has scored 20 or more goals in eight consecutive seasons.
“I expect him to be the guy that we know, that is in the corners, going to the front of the net, does the right thing to get the puck out,” Boudreau said. “I think the pressure for Mike, is when you start getting up in age — I know [when I played] — you always seem to be under one-year contracts. . . . You can never have a down year. That’s the pressure he’s under.”
During the offseason, Knuble followed a strict, five-days-a-week off-ice workout program, the results of which may have been no more evident than when he finished first ahead of players 10 to 15 years his junior in several heats of the conditioning test at the start of training camp.
“He knows how good he is, he knows how hard he’s going to work, he knows he wants to be a top-six forward,” Boudreau said. “He’s sitting there and he doesn’t want anybody to take his job and you’re going to watch him fight and claw like crazy to keep it. I don’t blame him, I would too.”
Capitals notes: Boudreau said defenseman Dennis Wideman, who walked with a limp and did not practice on Thursday, was only taking a maintenance day and will play on Saturday against the Hurricanes. . . . Washington recalled Keith Aucoin and Kyle Greentree from the AHL’s Bears on Thursday morning but sent them back down to Hershey in the afternoon.