Tuesday night began the way one would expect an arena to greet the return of its favorite son. Former Washington Capitals great Dale Hunter earned the applause and ovation of the sellout crowd at Verizon Center for his NHL coaching debut behind the home team’s bench.
There were video montages of his fights and goals, multiple replays of Hunter’s memorable playoff goal in 1988 against the Philadelphia Flyers and more than a few No. 32 jerseys in the seats. But by the midway point of their game against the St. Louis Blues, nostalgia gave way to the realization that there is plenty of work for Hunter and the Capitals yet to do.
Fans, players and new Capitals head coach Dale Hunter discuss Tuesday night’s 2-1 loss to St. Louis in Hunter’s coaching debut in Washington.
The Post Sports Live crew discusses what they'll miss most about former Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau and debate whether there is more pressure on the players as a result of the coaching change.
St. Louis spoiled Hunter’s return by capturing a 2-1 victory over the Capitals, who have now suffered three consecutive defeats and are 2-6-0 in their last eight outings. It also marked the fifth time in that stretch that Washington was limited to just one goal.
To be certain, emerging from a slump along with fully embracing the methods and habits set forward by a new coach will take time. This first game was just an initial step in what will be a long process, Hunter said.
“Definitely [confusion] happens with transition. They don’t got it down pat yet but I think they got better as it went on. They competed real hard and that’s what you need to win,” Hunter said. “You can’t set a time period to it but I want them to get better and better every game, after every practice. By watching them live now we’ve got some stuff to work on.”
While Washington demonstrated more hustle and won more individual battles than in the final two losses of the Bruce Boudreau era, the team still lacked poise in the defensive zone and routinely found itself hemmed in its own end through the opening 40 minutes of the game.
The Capitals struggled to create and sustain much offensive pressure until the third period against a St. Louis squad fresh off a coaching change of its own. The Blues, however, entered the matchup having already played 10 games under new Coach Ken Hitchcock and they are now 8-1-2 under their new boss, playing his smothering, trap-style to near perfection.
Washington took a 1-0 lead 10 minutes 15 seconds into the contest on a goal created by Alex Ovechkin
’s energy as he carried the puck over the blue line and down the right side boards, drawing two Blues to him. Ovechkin then sent a pass to an unguarded Nicklas Backstrom, who was between the hashmarks, and Washington’s top center shot the puck under the right pad of goaltender Jaroslav Halak (18 saves).
St. Louis responded a little over five minutes later when T.J. Oshie beat Karl Alzner to a rebound that came off the crossbar and knocked the puck into an empty net behind Tomas Vokoun (28 saves) to knot the score at 1.
It was a defensive breakdown, and considering that some of Hunter’s biggest alterations to the Capitals’ strategies stem from defensive zone coverage, players acknowledged that they will be learning on the fly as they are mired in a stretch of schedule where games occur every other day.