Despite plenty of emotion from the new head coach and in the stands, the Washington Capitals continued their recent slog, as they were bottled up and contained by the smothering defense and forecheck of the St. Louis Blues, 2-1, before an announced, but not actually realized, capacity crowd at Verizon Center.
The loss drops the Capitals to 12-10-1, losers of seven of their last 10 games. They fall to tenth in the Conference, but remain just seven points behind first place Pittsburgh, who visit D.C. Thursday.
After the game, the Capitals announced that Bob Woods was replaced as assistant coach by Jim Johnson. Johnson is a former NHL defenseman, most notably with Washington (1993-1996) and Pittsburgh (1985-1991) and was a former head coach of the AHL Norfolk Admirals, a Tampa Bay affiliate at the time.
On top of everything else, the Caps saw one of their off-season free agent prospects, Mattias Sjogren, bolt from AHL Hershey to return to his native Sweden. On Sjogren’s way out, GM George McPhee said, “If you’re going to quit on us, you might as well go [home].”
But the main story was the action on the ice, where new coach Dale Hunter insisted his team played hard and competed, but they still had the same problems that have plagued this team most of the season: losing individual battles, having trouble escaping their own end, and a disturbing lack of scoring chances. The Caps were outshot 30-19, and did not hit double digits in any of the three periods.
“I thought the guys worked hard tonight,” Hunter said in his first post-game press conference. “it was a tight game the whole game there. [St. Louis] have been playing well and are good defensively. We had a couple breakdowns that went in the net, but we had our chances and especially in the third period there where we could have tied it up.”
Hunter talked — a little bit — about the difficulty for the players going from Bruce Boudreau’s systems to his own. “It happens with transition. They don’t have it down pat yet and I think they got better as the game went on and they competed real hard. That’s the most important thing and that’s what you need to win.”
Hunter also placed a high priority on eliminating odd-man rushes, something he obviously has noticed in his film study of his new team. “We didn’t give up odd man rushes tonight. There were no two-on-ones and three-on-twos and they competed. We played smart, but they’re a good team and we got to give [St. Louis] credit too.”
Goalie Tomas Vokoun (28 saves) spoke about that point of emphasis as well. “No break-a-ways, no two-on-ones. We established that this is what we want to do going forward and you know it makes it a lot easier on your goalie. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how many shots they get, if there is three break-a-ways in one period it’s pretty tough to play for goalie. But I think we did a good job from defensive side today and you know obviously one goal, is not enough.”
“I thought we limited chances pretty well, better than we have in the last two weeks,” Brooks Laich said. “We still have room to improve – the goals against. Our two mistakes, our line was on for one of them. That puck [has] got to get out [of the defensive zone] twice, we didn’t get it out and it winds up in the back of our net, so it’s baby steps.”
Baby steps, indeed. There might be some good things for Hunter to look at from the game film of this one, but there will still be things he won’t like. He could have an interesting study in effort should he so choose, with two players taking different paths to cover an icing play.
Mid-way through the second period, the oldest guy on the team, Mike Knuble, put forth meritorious effort to beat a Blues defenseman trying to touch up. Late in the game, John Carlson literally coasted toward his own goal line and was bested by a St. Louis forward when the Caps really could have used an offensive zone faceoff, drawing boos from the crowd.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. The coming days, weeks and months Hunter will have to add bits and pieces here and there. The NHL isn’t like the OHL, a “bus league” as Hunter put it tonight, where they play on the weekends and get four straight days of practice during the week. He’s going to have to implant his system and techniques on the fly. But what he won’t stand for is lack of effort, and I’m pretty sure he’ll use the Carlson play to illustrate that point in meetings in the morning.
“People that work will play.” Hunter said this answering a question about Alex Semin this evening, and for the record Hunter thought Semin competed well. But his point goes beyond talking about just one player. Hunter the player was all about effort, and this version of the Caps, despite the coaching change, still didn’t have enough of it last night.
CAPS NOTES: The lone Caps goal was a thing of beauty, however. Alex Ovechkin took a pass from Tomas Vokoun in the left circle, skated diagonally through the neutral zone to the right wing, drew two defenders from the slot and hit a cutting Nick Backstrom with a pretty pass right out in front of Jaroslav Halak (18 saves) for the easy goal.
Due to a prolonged penalty kill in the second period, a result of a four-minute high stick when Troy Brouwer cut former Caps Jason Arnott, Ovechkin played just 16:46, one of his lowest TOI of the season.
The Caps were outhit by the Blues 35-32, but blocked 20 shots to six for St. Louis. Ovechkin led the team with four hits and Roman Hamrlik was credited with six blocks. Washington was 49 percent in the dot.