The Washington Capitals lost 2-1 to the St. Louis Blues in Dale Hunter’s coaching debut Tuesday night. Many seem surprised the change didn’t occur immediately (much like it did when Hunter’s predecessor Bruce Boudreau took over for Glen Hanlon in 2007). However, with much of the Capitals’ issues being related to systems and confidence as opposed to lack of proper personnel, visible change during the games, like outright victories, won’t come right away.
Small adjustments have been made, though, in other aspects of the team. The Capitals’ Tuesday morning skate was much more structured, with Bob Woods and Dean Evason going over plays with the team in a more in-depth way than done previously. Going into Tuesday night’s game with the Blues, Hunter went with the standard lines of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Brouwer, Semin-Johansson-Eakin, Chimera-Laich-Ward and Hendricks-Halpern-Knuble. He also made the move of making defenseman Jeff Schultz a healthy scratch and putting the struggling Roman Hamrlik with the surprisingly well-adjusted Dmitry Orlov.
Within the game, the Caps looked a bit more alive, as they jumped out to an early 1-0 lead in the first period. The only goal came as Alex Ovechkin took the puck from the defensive zone along the boards and, instead of doing his typical linear path into the offensive zone, he moved across ice, opening space for other players to move around. Ovechkin then fed the puck to Nicklas Backstrom, who had room and the clear shot to trickle the puck past Jaroslav Halak — formerly a nightmare for the Caps going back to his time with the Canadiens. Most importantly, the Capitals a hard fought loss, keeping the score to one goal rather than losing a demoralizing one where the team says, “Here we go again,” and gives up on playing like many of Washington’s recent losses. There was much more effort and emotion in this one, especially shown by Matt Hendricks fighting Scott Nichol just two minutes into the third period to try and bolster the energy of the Capitals and wake up the rather quiet Verizon Center crowd. Such occurrences definitely did not exist in the last few losses before Monday’s shakeup. I’d call it a morale victory, for sure.
While many expected a win Tuesday, some have not paid too much attention to the Western Conference, and may not realize that the Blues are not the same team the Caps beat twice last season. St. Louis, since accepting Ken Hitchcock as their new head coach, has played stellar and aggressive hockey, putting them at 8-1-2 since the Hitchcock hire after the win in Washington. Some argue that Hunter’s expectations are rather similar to Hitchcock’s, as Corey Masisak suggested in an NHL.com article, insomuch that a no-nonsense attitude is demanded from players. Yet, nine times out of 10, those similarities were not going to show Tuesday night. Hitchcock took the reins about three weeks ago, so the Blues have been at this disciplined aggressive forechecking and defense a little longer than the Caps, aside from already naturally being more physical than Washington’s squad, like many other Western Conference teams. So the Caps would not have an easy one to win for Hunter and their own confidence, and it wouldn’t be as obvious to audiences that any changes occurred.
As a result, the Capitals had a hard time earning offensive opportunities after facing a lengthy penalty-killing situation, including a long 5-on-3. The Blues, are one of the better teams in the league when they have possession of the puck in teams’ offensive zones and tend to cycle the puck effectively. Even though they didn’t score on their power plays — they do have the league’s worst percentage at 8.8% — with the extended time of possession, St. Louis took advantage of the momentum and kept the Caps at bay without scoring chances. The Caps ended up with only 19 shots on net, and one full power play, leading to Ovechkin with the lowest ice time of his career at 16:46 (via @VogsCaps — Mike Vogel of WashingtonCaps.com).
Like Boudreau, Hunter will be learning how to adjust his coaching style to the NHL and how much micromangement he’ll need to do with the roster he has in place. Tuesday night, he chose to play his lines based on matchups, also contributing to Ovechkin’s low ice time. However, he also believes the players should have their space to create. Hunter would know: he had 500+ assists as a Capital and finished his entire career with 1,000 points. Finding the right balance between player freedom and playing bench boss when needed will be key for Hunter to succeed as a coach in Washington right now.
After the game, it was announced that the Caps have hired Jim Johnson (another former Capital, played in Washington for two out of 13 seasons in the league) to take over for Woods as assistant coach. Once a defenseman, Johnson has carried his career to the coaching front, as he was the assistant coach a few seasons ago for the Tampa Bay Lightning and then was head coach for the Norfolk Admirals in the AHL. Johnson is a defensive-minded coach, and should be able to assist Hunter in tightening the Caps’ defense, which all players and observers alike know will need to happen for the Caps to reduce opponent opportunities and earn their own.
With Johnson coming in to help fix the issues behind the blueline, Hunter can focus on his players’ offensive capabilities. As Bob McKenzie said on TSN Radio 990, Hunter likes to give his best offensive players opportunities and give them favorable ice time, providing them chances to play their own game. If he didn’t, he’d be no worse than Boudreau for forcing a system that will, ultimately, bog down players like Ovechkin, Backstrom, Johansson and Semin. So the move to bring in Johnson really gives Hunter a chance to work on offense, which is very much lacking in Washington.
With all of the coaching changes, though, it will also be under the players’ responsibility to help give Hunter room to work with the right mindsets and better play. It seems so far that they are all open, which is to be expected.
Mike Knuble said after the game that it was good to get this one out of the way, regarding the pressure of playing the first game with the new coach and that it’s understandable to struggle a little early on.
“When you work on habits every day for the last couple years there are some habits to break around here and to get Dale’s Way going.”
“We’re just scratching the surface but there’s a lot more to go,” said Brooks Laich. “I think our potential is great but it takes a lot — a lot — of work to get there.
“It doesn’t come overnight, especially with the change,” Laich continued. “We’ve got to get used to a little bit of a new system and a new style, but it’s gonna take months to perfect.”
The players acknowledged the change would be something to get accustomed to, but they still know it’s up to them to get their winning ways to return. They have an important stretch of games coming up, starting with Thursday when they face the Eastern Conference-leading rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, at home. After Saturday’s home match against the tough-playing Ottawa Senators, the Caps will return on the road where they have only amassed eight points all year to play the Southeast Division leaders, the Florida Panthers. Adjustments will be needed, and it would do well for them to adjust as quickly as possible. However, as Laich said, there will be months to perfect Hunter’s system and return to their desired position.