After Alex Ovechkin completed the first of his five suicide-sprint heats Saturday morning, Coach Bruce Boudreau skated over to the star left wing and pointed to the goal line. Ovechkin had stopped short as he powered through that first segment, and there wouldn’t be any cheating on this conditioning test.
On the first day of Washington Capitals training camp, all skaters were put through a grueling set of timed sprints with controlled recovery times in a test unlike any the organization has used in the Boudreau era.
“I think it sets the right tone,” General Manager George McPhee said of the test. “We’re going to manage hard, coach hard, play hard, practice hard this year. It’s about doing it right, practicing right, playing the game right. If you do all of those things — play the 200-foot game and play the game right — get the process right, the results will be there.”
Players completed five sets of sprints, each consisting of 41 / 2 lengths of the ice surface — from goal line to goal line — with two minutes of recovery time between each set.
Times were measured on three occasions during each round — after two lengths, after four and a final time at the finish — to illustrate a player’s gradual fatigue. At the conclusion of the entire test, blood was drawn for a lactate test that helps measure the intensity at which players were exerting themselves.
Once Boudreau corrected Ovechkin, the captain made sure to hit the mark with hard stops precisely on the goal line in each of the final four sets. Ovechkin went all-out at the start of the test, his strides pounding the ice and reverberating across the floor, and led his group of seven the first two times. But as the suicide sprints continued he naturally grew tired.
“He told me, make the red line,” Ovechkin said of his conversation with Boudreau. “I said, ‘Look I stop right here.’ He said, ‘No, you have to make one step forward,’ so I try to do this.
“Two times I was flying,” Ovechkin continued. “I thought like, ‘Oh, it’s going to be easy’ and after that I can’t feel my legs. . . . I think right now everybody have to push a little bit hard. It’s something new for us and everybody was kind of excited and everybody after that was kind of tired. Now it’s time to go home and eat a little bit and have a nap.”
Although there was no time limit to complete each set of sprints, there’s an implied pressure among teammates to not finish last. It gives the Capitals staff a starting point when monitoring or adjusting players’ conditioning levels over the course of the season, but it’s also a test that exposes anyone who might have arrived at camp out of shape.
“There’s no place to hide. You can certainly see who’s in shape and who isn’t,” McPhee said. “We’re always trying to find ways to improve. Every player has an aspect of his game that he can improve upon, so they’ve all been talked to in that regard. As a team we’re trying to find what can we do as a team to continually progress.”
Among those who stood out and appeared to handle the test with relative ease were Mike Knuble, Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, Jason Chimera, Karl Alzner and Brooks Laich. Even though he weathered the sprints well, Knuble admitted it’s not a fun task. But he added that teammates can unite when they’re all working through the same rigorous challenge.
As players became increasingly exhausted over the course of a test, they would yell encouragement at each other, as would Boudreau. The coach patrolled the ice, offering assurances that the sprints would be over soon, that each set was the length of an average shift and nothing they couldn’t handle, even if they were shifts that required nothing less than all the energy they had.
“That’s how every shift should be,” Alzner said. “If we’re skating like that every shift we’re going to be a pretty tough team to beat.”
Capitals note: Tom Poti failed his medical exam on Friday, according to McPhee, and it is unclear when or if the defenseman will be able to contribute on the ice again. Poti has not played since Jan. 12 because of a lingering groin-muscle injury and he will be placed on the long-term injured list, meaning the Capitals can exceed the salary cap in the amount of his salary, which is $2.875 million this season.