BALLSTON, Va. - Not even halfway through the Washington Capitals' practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex Wednesday, the team is participating in their second of four rounds of suicide sprints. Players are skating to each line on the ice and back as head coach Bruce Boudreau blows his whistle authoritatively to signal the next group of skaters.
Near the end of the drill, many Caps are hunched over in an attempt to recuperate. In the middle of one set of players on one end of the ice is the face of the franchise; a red-faced Alex Ovechkin gets on his hands and knees and gasps for air in front of the net.
It all happens after Tuesday's 5-2 loss to the Dallas Stars, after which coach Bruce Boudreau is asked if the Caps' uninspired play was a comfort issue considering the team's 7-0-0 start.
"If it's a comfort thing, the comfort will change tomorrow," he said after the game.
Wednesday's 90-minute practice is anything but comfortable. Washington goes through four rounds of grueling sprints, with several drills emphasizing the one-on-one battles that Boudreau believed his team had lost frequently in their previous two games mixed in. The intensity level ratchets up significantly as 10 groups of players compete in puck possession battles along the boards and in open ice. Checks are finished. Sticks are slashed. There is in-game focus and emotion not usually seen during practices.
"A lot of things are necessary," Jason Chimera says afterwards. "It's indicative of the way we play, so if guys practice as hard as they did today, it should be no problem in games."
Before the final round of suicides, assistant coach Dean Evason grabs one of the goals and pushes it to the far side of the ice. The nets are then set up about 20 to 25 feet apart as Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun each stand up in front of one. As the rest of the Caps gather around, they are paired together as the puck was sent into the confined space. Different "teams" skate onto the ice and battle for the loose puck in an attempt to put it in the net. It is during this drill when smiles creep onto the Caps' faces for the first time. After Chimera and Joel Ward score on Neuvirth, Ward throws his stick into the air to celebrate as Chimera gives him a high-five.
Boudreau - who admits later that the kind of skate he put his team through is the first of its kind since his second season as coach - sends a message Wednesday. Yet, the message isn't necessarily one of punishment. Instead, it is one of competition.
"The one thing it shows, no matter how tired you are, you can have fun if you're working hard," Boudreau says of the aforementioned drill. "They were smiling and laughing and yet they were kicking the crap out of each other, so hard work doesn't necessarily have to mean punishment. If you want to compete, it can be fun."
Boudreau acknowledges that bag skates like the ones he administers Wednesday have the potential to either help or hinder his team and he's seen it work both ways, but what he knows for a fact is that the Caps understand that poor play will not go unnoticed.
"Coaches, they try things," Boudreau says. "Sometimes they work and sometimes they don't. I don't know if it's right or if it's wrong, but you can't stay status quo when you're not playing well."
Accountability has been the focus of this Washington team since this summer and Wednesday's practice is yet another example of that. Poor play will not be tolerated. By putting all 22 active members of the roster on notice with such a practice, they understand that it's up to them now to step up.
"Message delivered," Karl Alzner says. "We all understand. There's not a whole lot more they can do as coaches. It's up to us to take what we've been given and change it."