Dale Hunter preached patience from the day he arrived in Washington, acknowledging that a turnaround would take time.
He was right. The process has been slow, sometimes painfully so.
But the Capitals finished 2011 with a flourish, winning three in a row, and they are 4-1-1 in the last six and 8-6-1 since Hunter stepped behind the bench on Nov. 28.
That’s not to say they’re once again the Stanley Cup favorites the Hockey News ordained them to be in September. But after watching Alex Ovechkin and his teammates soundly defeat the New York Rangers and Buffalo Sabres, then rally on New Year’s Eve and steamroll the league-worst Blue Jackets, even hardened skeptics would probably agree the Capitals are moving in the right direction.
And that U-turn has started with goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who has been on top of his game since reemerging as the Capitals’ No. 1 netminder. After serving as the backup for three consecutive games, he has stopped 107 of the 112 shots he’s seen since replacing Michal Neuvirth in Buffalo on Dec. 26.
The defense in front of Vokoun has also been trending in the right direction because of Hunter’s passive 1-2-2 forecheck and assistant coach Jim Johnson’s adjustments in the defensive zone, namely tightening the gap between themselves and attacking players. The most tangible measure of the defensive zone improvement has been the reduction of odd-man rushes and prime scoring chances against, players said.
“Before we play more wide-open style,” Vokoun said. “Now we’re definitely a lot more responsible. If we have a breakdown, it’s more like a four-on-three, never a two-on-one. It’s obviously a difference for the goalie when you don’t have to face three breakaways or two-on-one’s in one game.”
As a result, the Capitals have yielded two goals or fewer in six of the past eight games. In 15 games under Hunter, in fact, they’re surrendering an average of 2.33 goals per game, which would be good for sixth in the league. Under Boudreau, they permitted an average of 3.27 per, which would rank 28th.
“Our goaltender will make the save if we give up an outside shot,” forward Brooks Laich said. “We’ve really been aware of not giving up grade-A chances.”
In addition to instilling a defensive conscience, Hunter’s other primary directive was to flip Ovechkin’s “on switch.”
We’re witnessing progress on that front, too.
Ovechkin has notched six goals and three assists in the past six games, is taking more shots, getting more scoring chances and seems to be more physically involved, even if that physicality isn’t always consistent.
Since the coaching change, the former two-time MVP has taken 4.3 shots per game, up from 3.6 before it. He’s also getting 3.3 scoring chances per game, up from 2.4 under Boudreau.
“I have more opportunities,” said Ovechkin, who was named the NHL’s second star of the week Monday. “Right now, I start go to the net more than I usually do. . . . If I had opportunity to shoot, I just have to shoot the puck. If I’m not going to shoot the puck, I’m not going to score. I just change a little bit of [my] game, and you can see [it].”
Hunter said he suspects Ovechkin’s surge is connected to the 6-foot-3, 230-pound bulldozer of a left wing throwing his weight around more often.
“Against the Rangers, he had a big hit on [Dan] Girardi, their shutdown ‘D’,” Hunter said, referring to a first-period, open-ice check Ovechkin dished out in the Capitals’ 4-1 win over the Eastern Conference leaders on Dec. 28. “That backs ’em off, and he gets more room.”
Ovechkin’s reemergence may be the most noticeable, but he isn’t the only Young Gun putting up impressive numbers lately. Winger Alexander Semin has joined his close friend and countryman, scoring three goals and five points during the winning streak. Center Nicklas Backstrom, meantime, has a goal and three assists during the recent run.
It’s also possible the fourth member — defenseman Mike Green — will rejoin the band this week after missing all but eight games this season due to injuries. Green hinted after practice that he would like to play Tuesday against visiting Calgary.
“As a coach you can’t wait to get him back in the lineup,” Hunter said. “It’s like a Christmas present.”
The next test arrives this week, which began with Washington sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference but only one point out of sixth.
First, the Capitals host a road-weary Flames team that’s lost three straight at Verizon Center, where they’ve posted the third-best record on home ice this season at 13-5-1. Then they Capitals head to San Jose, where they haven’t won since 1993, and Los Angeles, where they haven’t won since 2005.
Defenseman Karl Alzner senses an opportunity in the coming weeks.
“In January and February, guys’ heads start to wander a little bit, at least until the all-star break comes,” he said. “So this is a good opportunity to win some games and surprise some teams.”
By most measures, the Capitals closed out 2011 headed in the right direction. Now everyone is wondering whether it’s a long- or a short-term turnaround.
It was the question of the day Monday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, where the tone in the dressing room was upbeat. It was also optimistic, albeit cautious.
“I don’t think we can be patting too much ourselves on the back,” Vokoun said. “We’re certainly not anywhere near where we should be. Our play has improved, but we have a ways to go to be in the standings where we want to be.”
Neil Greenberg contributed to this report.