CAPITALS FEELING BLUE AFTER HUNTERS DEBUT
Despite losing 2-1 to the white hot St. Louis Blues last evening, the Washington Capitals played nothing like they did over this past weekend when they dropped two straight games, ultimately costing their head coach, Bruce Boudreau his job on Monday.
General Manager George McPhee replaced Boudreau with long time Caps great Dale Hunter, who unfortunately became just the second Caps coach to lose his debut out of the last five that were hired. The return of Hunter to Washington began as a feel good affair. How could seeing old' No.32 not bring up memories of his goal vs. the Flyers in overtime of the 1988 playoffs, or even his hit on the Islanders Pierre Turgeon during the 1993 playoffs.
Knowing Hunters playing style is to know, that big time changes are in store for the Capitals, and while they didn’t play like they did this past weekend, they were not exactly the high flying, goal scoring, hardworking Capitals that many wanted to see.
Be patient, this is a process. Hunter does not come from within the system as Boudreau did, or Terry Murray did. He brings his own system. Hunters system will be void of individualism, superstardom, and laziness. The new Capitals will be known for taking the play to their opponents. There were moments last night when those three issues showed their ugly heads, and you can believe that while Hunter was in a jovial mood so to speak following the game, he definitely had a pad full of notes.
I’m sure written down somewhere was the icing play that John Carlson blew. Carlson had a 10 feet head start on the touch-up, and instead of hustling to finish the play, bringing the faceoff back into the offensive zone, Carlson pulled up on the play, and got beat to the puck.
Despite assisting on the Caps lone goal, and looking a bit quicker in his skates, I’m sure also written down is the fact that Alex Ovechkin squandered two first period chances and two third period chances because of the predictability in his game. Then there was the defense, and though they only allowed two goals last night, the game winner was a complete breakdown around the net that started with the failure to clear the zone, and man up. It ended with Tomas Vokoun way out of position, and numerous Caps defenders standing around.
The St. Louis Blues weren’t exactly in the holiday spirit of giving last evening, and have not been since their new head coach, Ken Hitchcock, took over on Nov-7. Like many of the Washington teams Dale Hunter played on, the Blues forced Washington to fight for everything they got, and it wasn’t much in the end.
The Blues are smack dab in the middle of the proverbial new head coach bounce that usually occurs when old coaches are fired. Hopefully, the Caps will start their bounce on Thursday versus the Penguins, but right now it’s all about defense with St. Louis, and fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on what type of hockey you like, it will also be defense or bust for the Capitals real soon too.
If you know Hitchcock then you know it’s always about defense, and scoring on his teams have always come at a premium. Since taking over 23 days ago, Hitchcock and the Blues are 8-2-1, have jumped from 14th to near the top of the Western conference. They have the best defense in the NHL, and came into last night's game allowing a little over two goals per game.
Hitchcock even had the luxury of sitting the best goalie in the league, Brian Elliott, who's lost just once this year. In his place stood Washington’s old playoff nemesis from the Montreal Canadiens, Jaroslav Halak.
Halak didn't have to work like he did two years ago in the playoffs, when the Capitals badly outshot the Habs, but still managed to lose the playoff series after leading 3-games-to-1. Last night Halak faced just 19 Washington shots, as the Blues played a perfect road game, and registered 30 of their own.
Washington shouldn't get to down on their selves, entering Tuesday night’s contest, the Blues had been the league’s stingiest team in terms of shots on goal allowed with an average of just 25.9 shots against per game. Attempted shots are becoming more and more of bigger stat in the NHL these days, and the Blues stifled the Capitals in that department as well.
Washington attempted just 30, as 19 were on net, six were blocked, and five missed the net completely. St. Louis plays Hitchcock’s smothering, trap-style to near perfection, as they outworked the Capitals in the corners, along the boards, and beat them to most loose pucks. St. Louis has now surrendered two or fewer goals in 10 of its last 11 games, while Washington has scored just one goal in five of their past eight games.
The Caps are now 5-10-1 since recording a franchise best 7-0 mark to start the season.
If you ask me, the Blues were the perfect opponent for Hunters first game because it's very likely Caps fans should see a similar style in the coming weeks and months. Hunter will demand his team work on every shift by battling for every loose puck. Hunter will ask his defense to simply limit scoring chances by taking playing tight defense. Offensive minded players will be expected to be extremely responsible in their own end, and the days of the two Alex's jumping out of the defensive zone early looking for a breakaway will be long gone.
Hunter's system will get the goal scorers their fair share of chances, but they will come at the expense of having forced a turnover, and working the puck up the ice. The Caps teams that Hunter played on were not gifted offensively, so almost every point was a result of having forced a play after the other team made a mistake.
Make no mistake Caps fans, Washington's offense will be a former shell of itself in terms of how they score, but think about the Detroit Red Wings of the late 90's, and their smothering defense. The Wings that won back-to-back Stanley Cups bore no resemblance to high flying Edmonton Oilers of the mid 80's, but in 1997 they finished the season ranked second in goals against (197) and sixth in goals (253) for. The following season when they swept the Caps in four straight games to repeat, Dale Hunters last as a Capital, Detroit flipped the script, and ranked second in GF (250), and seventh in GA (196).
Washington has the talent to duplicate that style of play. Its Hunters job to find the middle of the Washington team that scored 318 goals two seasons ago, and allowed an all-time franchise low 2.29 goals against last season.
The Capitals did manage a 1-0 lead a little over 10 minutes into the contest. Alex Ovechkin, who seemed to have an extra bounce in his predictable step, carried the puck over the blue line and down the right side boards, drawing two Blues to him. The Great 8 then shocked the world, and instead of the curl and drag, followed by a missed shot, Ovie threw a nice pass to an open Nicklas Backstrom, who was between the hashmarks, and Washington’s leading scorer managed to beat Halak with a knuckle shot under the right pad.
The Blues needed just five minutes to tie the game, as Karl Alzner was beaten to a rebound off a shot that hit the crossbar. The original shot should have easily been gloved by Caps starter Tomas Vokoun (28 saves), but was picked up by Oshie and knocked into the net.
This was another one of those plays that you hope not see in a few weeks, as Caps defenders should be playing more up on their man under Hunter.
Brooks Laich explained after the game last night by telling reporters, “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 the lead 2-1 on another defensive breakdown in the second period. Vokoun failed to secure a shot by the Blues Matt D’Agostini, and when Dennis Wideman failed to tie up the stick of St. Louis center Patrik Berglund, he fed the puck behind the net to D’Agostini who completed the wrap around for the game winner.
Vokoun was so far out of position that D’Agostini could have crawled around the cage backwards to wrap the puck into the net. The net was so wide open, it appeared Vokoun had been pulled in favor of an extra attacker. To be fair to the Capitals, they have been through a lot over the past 48 hours, and although this is a self-inflicted wound that required the firing of their coach to help with the healing, it is still an open wound none the less.
Washington had their moments last night. They were stellar on the penalty kill, as they killed off all four St. Louis power plays, one a 5-on-3. All-in-all, Washington's penalty kill was the best part of their game last evening, as the Caps spent 5-minutes and 3-seconds down at least one man. They almost scored while down two men, and allowed no two on one’s, or any breakaways. That is significant in its self because both Dale Hunter and Tomas Vokoun mentioned that fact when talking to reporters following the game.
The Capitals are very good hockey team in search of a leader, and an identity. Their former leader finally spoke with some members of the media today. Boudreau is a class act, and decided that he would wait until after Hunter's debut to talk.
He told Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post that “I told George this on Monday: I tried every trick that I knew in 18 years and nothing was working.” Boudreau said. “I told him, ‘You’re doing what you have to do.’ I thought I was going to be here forever, but this was something I thought that had to be done. Am I disappointed? Absolutely.”
That is a very telling statement into the current state of the Capitals. Not only does Washington have to adjust to a new system, but they have to learn to follow once again, and trust a leader. It is obvious by Boudreua’s comments that somewhere this season, they quit on him. That is not a good thing under any circumstance, and may even temporarily hinder Hunters progress.
Watching the Caps right now, they seem like a defeated bunch, they are playing with the deer in the headlights look, at times. They are confused, and it would not have mattered if George McPhee hired Vince Lombardi, Toe Blake or Scotty Bowman in their primes. The Capitals, or any team for that matter, that has not had faith in a head coach, or leader, for an extended period, isn’t going to find that faith overnight.
Their new head coach has his team's respect, his NHL resume warrants that, and so far several Capitals have acknowledged that fact. However, trust is another issue, and if Hunter can gain their trust and get them to buy into his system, one that help him become the fastest head coach in OHL histoy to win 300, and 400 games, then come springtime, the Caps could be back doing where Hunter last left off in D.C, playing for a Stanley Cup.
Thursday Vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Capitals are 11-0-2 versus the Penguins during the past three regular seasons, and have not lost in regulation time to Pittsburgh since March-9, 2008. For more stats about the game, and a preview of the Pens-Caps tilt, be sure to look for my article previewing the game, and see what Sid the Kid can look forward to in his first game vs Washington since the Winter Classic.