Amid bright expectations and newfound stability, the Washington Capitals opened training camp Thursday. It didn't take long for the mood to change.
Roughly 10 minutes into the opening practice, forward Brooks Laich — coming off an injury-ruined season — left the ice at Kettler Iceplex, saying he had a "flare-up" of a strained hip flexor suffered a week ago on his first day in Washington after a summer of successful rehab of a pulled groin.
Laich, one of the Capitals' locker room leaders, was anxious for the start of camp after playing only nine games last year.
"The ice here is a lot softer than the ice I skated on back home (in Saskatchewan), and when I skated here I just tweaked it a little bit," Laich said. "It's completely nonrelated to anything I went through last year and on the other side of my body."
Laich's status is day-to-day. Neither general manager George McPhee nor coach Adam Oates sounded particularly concerned.
"Hopefully it's a day or two," McPhee said.
While the injury may not be serious, it is symbolic of a star-crossed team that has consistently underachieved in the postseason.
Franchise cornerstones Nicklas Backstrom, 25, Mike Green, 27, and Alex Ovechkin, who turns 28 on Sept. 17, have helped propel Washington to five division titles in the last six years but with no trips to the conference finals. Last year's 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers at home in Game 7 of the opening round after leading the series 2-0 was perhaps the team's most embarrassing playoff pratfall.
"We've proven (to) ourselves that we're a good team. But we haven't proven we're a great team," Green said. "The only way to do that is to win a Stanley Cup."
Washington hopes that stability will help achieve that goal. The team underwent a radical makeover in the middle of the 2011-12 season when Dale Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau as coach. There was another difficult transition when Oates took over last summer, with little preseason to install his system due to the NHL lockout.
"Last couple of years we've had a little bit of chaos in there as far as knowing where you fit in on the team, knowing where your role is," forward Troy Brouwer said. "This year with very limited spots on the team, everyone kind of knows where they fall in and what's expected of them even before camp starts."
On the ice, Washington will look for improvement from young goalies Braden Holtby, 23, and Michal Neuvirth, 24, under the direction of Olie Kolzig. The former Caps great was promoted to head goaltender coach after two seasons with the team in a developmental role.
Many of the Caps expressed their approval of the realigned NHL. Washington will play in the Metropolitan Division along with traditional rivals including the New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Philadelphia Flyers.
The Capitals open the regular season on Oct. 1 on the road against the NHL champion Chicago Blackhawks, a prospect that doesn't please Brouwer, a former Chicago player who still resides in the city.
"I spent a lot of the summer trying to avoid Chicago," Brouwer said. "The worst thing that could happen to me this summer was having to play them opening night and see the banner."