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.
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.
“It’s going to take months to perfect,” Brooks Laich said. “In the D-zone we want to be a lot more aggressive. Traditionally you want to have a defenseman in front of the net but he’s preaching for us to get out. Maybe a little more man-to-man . . . tighter defensively where it’s not just zone and offensively we really want to try to funnel pucks down below the net, go low to high. It’s not stuff that’s ground breaking or brand new but little things to focus on to try to help us.”
The Blues took a 2-1 lead 8:54 into the second period when a shot by Matt D’Agostini hit Vokoun’s arm and bounced out in front as a juicy rebound. Dennis Wideman didn’t tie up the stick of St. Louis center Patrik Berglund, who fed the puck behind the net to D’Agostini, who wrapped around the cage to shoot into the open net with Vokoun out of position.
Washington came out with more offensive gumption in the third period, but still only mustered eight shots on goal in the frame and wasn’t able to put another shot past Halak.
It certainly wasn’t an ideal start to Hunter’s tenure as Washington’s coach, but as the players said there’s no doubt that their new director will make plenty sure to point out what he wants in the coming days of practice and games.
“I think Dale’s going to keep pounding the system into us,” Matt Hendricks said. “I think that’s what you’ll see tomorrow at practice. Keep working on the areas that we made mistakes in tonight and eventually we might get a few more power plays and a few more opportunities to score goals.”
Capitals notes: General Manager George McPhee said via text Monday night that former NHL defenseman Jim Johnson would be joining Hunter’s staff. Johnson will work with the team’s defensemen and replaces Bob Woods, who was in his third year in Washington and had close ties to Boudreau. . . .
Prospect Mattias Sjogren, who has played 19 games with the Hershey Bears this year, has decided to return to Sweden because he believed he deserved more of an opportunity to play in the NHL rather than the AHL. “If you’re going to quit on us,” McPhee said, “you might as well go [back].”