Capitals vs. Penguins: Dale Hunter still looking for first win as Washington falls to Pittsburgh

December 1, 2011

The Pittsburgh Penguins inspire fiery performances from the Washington Capitals. Thursday night’s visit to Verizon Center, with new Coach Dale Hunter behind the Capitals’ bench, was no exception.

Washington played an energetic, physical game against its bitter rivals, skating with spunk that was lacking in recent contests, but the performance didn’t result in a victory. Pittsburgh captured a 2-1 win, extending Capitals’ losing streak to four and claiming its first regular season victory in regulation over Washington since March 9, 2008, a span of 14 games.

Washington is 3-9-1 in its last 13 outings and has been limited to one goal in six of the past nine games, including each of the past three. Against Pittsburgh, the Capitals mustered just 17 shots on goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury.

“We played too much in our own end,” said Hunter, who is still searching for his first win after two games as an NHL coach. “We have to get the puck out quicker . . . so we don’t play as much time [there]. It’s very tiresome to the guys and by the time they get it out, they almost have to dump and change so we have to get it out of there.”

The dearth of offensive production stems in part from the adjustments Washington is making to Hunter’s defense-first system, which requires the team to create chances off transitions and heavy forechecks. But taking just two shots in the third period and none in the final 5 minutes 32 seconds is not a trend the Capitals (12-11-1) want to continue.

“It was something new for us. It’s new system,” said Alex Ovechkin, who recorded just one shot on goal in 19:22 of ice time but was credited with 10 hits. “I think when you get the cycle you have to go to the net — right now it’s just a period of time. Goals is going to come. It’s not going to be like we score every game one goal; it’s never going to happen to this team. . . . We have to get used” to the system.

Pittsburgh (15-7-4) got off to a strong start, establishing itself in the offensive zone and taking a 1-0 lead on a goal by fourth-liner Craig Adams just 5:21 into the contest. But the Capitals didn’t sulk and responded by forcing their way down the ice.

Despite spending more time in the offensive zone, though, the Capitals couldn’t generate many shots on goal — they finished with only four in the first period — and numerous quality scoring chances fizzled with giveaways and shots that never reached the target.

“Right now I think we’re cycling the puck and we’re not getting the pucks to the net,” said Dennis Wideman, who led Washington with 26:02 of playing time. “Our D, we’re not getting shots through when we get the opportunity. I think when we get a chance we’ve got to get it to the net, and when we get our scoring chances we have to hit the net.”

As has often been the case this season, third-line winger Jason Chimera would finally put the Capitals on the scoreboard. Carrying the puck out of the left corner in the offensive zone, Chimera cut in front of the net looking as though he would pass but instead whipped a backhander past Fleury inside the right post to make it 1-1 with 1:20 elapsed in the second period. It was Chimera’s team-leading 10th goal, equaling his total from last season.

Forty-one seconds later, Washington had one of its best chances of the night. Ovechkin made a nifty cross-ice pass to set up Nicklas Backstrom coming down the left side as Fleury dropped in the crease as he went side to side. But rather than finding the open cage, the Swedish center’s shot glanced off the crossbar.

“When you have luck, the puck goes in,” Ovechkin said. “If he’s going to have 20 more chances, he’s going to put in 19. This was one chance and he missed it.”

When prime scoring chances are few, though, the misses seem magnified and Washington has been outshot 65-36 in its first two games under Hunter.

Less than three minutes into the third period, Chris Kunitz fought off both Marcus Johansson and John Erskine to retrieve a puck entering the Capitals’ zone.

The Penguins forward cut into the slot and his shot went between Tomas Vokoun’s left arm and his body. Vokoun finished with 33 saves, but that goal would prove to be the difference.

“You play the game; you’re not thinking about mistakes,” Vokoun said. “You’re in the game and you worry about stopping the puck. It’s tough to win with one goal. It’s definitely not easy when things are not going well, and obviously we’re not getting the pressure in their zone and we’re not scoring.”

Capitals notes: Mike Green missed a 10th consecutive game with a strained right groin. . . . Roman Hamrlik and Mathieu Perreault were healthy scratches.

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