New Coach, New Loss (But It Gets Better)

Posted November 29, 2011

Dale Hunter‘s first game reminded me a lot of last year’s losing streak. Yes, the Caps lost 2-1 to the St. Louis Blues, but I don’t mean the losing part. I mean the “baby steps” part.

The adjustment that cost Bruce Boudreau‘s team eight games was partly explained by the system change that he was implementing. And with each game, you could see minor improvements. And all but three of those games were one-goal losses.

In a nutshell, that was this game.

The first period was mediocre. The second period as a bit better, and the final minutes of the third period were probably the best for Washington. And considering the team is coming out of a slump with a new coach and new system, there seem to be many more “steps” on the horizon.

“The next step will be at practice,” said Brooks Laich, “Yesterday was a little rushed and then tomorrow we’ll look at some film maybe. There’s a couple tweaks that we’ve made. But then we have to force the issue a little bit more. Lately we haven’t been creating a lot of real good scoring chances.”

Those tweaks reversed the trend of short-handed rushes against the team, as Mike Knuble had a breakaway during the five-on-three penalty kill in the second period. Given the fact that St. Louis currently has the worst power play in the league (8.8%), that may not be the most impressive feat, but it’s something to build on.

But a loss is still a loss and the fact is that the Caps made numerous defensive lapses. Blind passes became turnovers, brief hesitations turned into takeaways.

Part of it, of course, was the new system, as Hunter, among others, acknowledged, “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.”

Unfortunately, that inconsistency in their own zone meant bad numbers for some top players. Alex Ovechkin pulled a skilled set-up Nicklas Backstrom that lead to the Caps’ only goal, but those brief moments did not come often. Ovechkin himself registered one shot in the game, one that didn’t come until the third period.

Matt Hendricks, who fought Scott Nichol in the third period, believes defensive improvement is central to what Hunter and the team are looking for, “A lot of people say good defensive hockey leads to offensive opportunities. And it does. If you’re in the right position all the time, teams need to take chances to score goals make mistakes, and you can turn it up the other way. I think that’s what we’re working toward here.”

The team seems content with the small improvements for now, but John Carlson echoed a sentiment most likely shared in the locker room.

“There’s a lot of stuff to build on, but we need to start winning games.”