Caps Fall in Hunter’s Debut

November 29, 2011 | Ed Frankovic

“Baby steps,  I’m doing the work!”  – Bill Murray in What About Bob?

Baby steps. That is where the Washington Capitals are right now after losing 2-1 to a very good St. Louis Blues team at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night. Nicklas Backstrom scored an early goal on a nice feed from Alexander Ovechkin but defensive zone breakdowns led to two Blues tallies to spoil Dale Hunter’s coaching debut. The Caps are now 12-10-1 and will face Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night in DC.

Here are the highlights, quotes, and analysis of a game that saw the Blues improve to 8-1-2 since they hired Ken Hitchcock to be their new coach:

– The Caps played with energy tonight, but it wasn’t focused in the right places. They didn’t get enough phyiscal pressure on the Blues defense and they weren’t getting to the front of the Blues net to create in close scoring chances. They started slow and got better as the game went on, which is understandable given the system tweaks and emotional roller coaster they have endured in the last 48 hours with the coaching change. However, it was not enough to get a victory.

“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 [do to] win,” commented Hunter on his teams execution on Tuesday.

“When you play for a coach for four or five years, you get used to certain things and when somebody else comes in and switches it up, some things on the ice just become second nature and now you have to think a little more and adjust on the fly a little more. The habits of work ethic, supporting the puck, moving your feet, getting pucks out, getting pucks in, those sorts of habits should stay with us. [We’ve] just got to try to pick up a few more good ones,” added Brooks Laich on how the change behind the bench impacted the Caps play.

– On the first Blues goal, both Joel Ward and Jason Chimera made costly giveaways on the same shift and the result was a TJ Oshie tally that tied the game up just five and a half minutes after the Capitals had grabbed a first period lead. The game winning goal came off of a big Tomas Vokoun (28 saves) rebound and Dennis Wideman missed the puck above the crease trying to tie up Patrick Berglund. #21 moved the puck to Matt D’Agostini who took the biscuit around the cage and wrapped it home 8:54 into period two. That would be all St. Louis goaltender Jaroslav Halak (18 saves) would need to prevail at the Verizon Center once again. Defensive zone lapses have been something that has plagued Washington this year and it cost them again. Overall though, the Caps did a better job of limiting odd man rushes, something Buffalo and other opponents have feasted on recently against them. So despite the breakdowns, there was some improvement in the defensive play of the Caps on Tuesday.

“I thought we limited chances pretty well, better than we have in the last two weeks. 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 twice, we didn’t get it out and it winds up in the back of our net, so it’s baby steps,” added Laich, who was the center with Ward and Chimera on the first goal.

– Alexander Semin (2 shots, 3 takeaways, only 1 giveaway, no penalties) had one of his better games since early in the season. He worked hard and competed on the boards. Hunter put him on the ice in the final minute and he nearly helped get Washington the game tying goal by out battling a couple of Blues in the corner. #28 had only 14:37 of ice time and his Russian friend, Ovechkin, only logged 16:46 but #32 had some good logic on why the Gr8’s ice time was what it was.

“In the second period there were a lot of penalties and he wasn’t killing, so he didn’t play as much. I thought he was pretty much out there a lot in the third,” said Hunter.

– St. Louis is really playing well and they do a great job of skating and taking away time and space. They put enormous back pressure on the opposition and it is easy to see why they are rolling right now. They deserve a lot of credit for why the Caps were held to only 19 shots.

“We played a heck of a hockey game. We created a lot of scoring chances. We didn’t give up anything in two periods. We created a lot for ourselves and we’re starting to dial in the way we need to play to win hockey games. When you play this well, it’s a good feeling,” said Hitchcock, a Stanley Cup winning coach with the Dallas Stars in 1999, after the contest.

– So the Caps recent losing ways continue but there were some things to like in this game. Hunter was fairly upbeat afterwards with his final analysis and Ovechkin wasn’t hitting any panic buttons either.

“Next step [is] to play hard like we play tonight, especially in the third period. I think, I would say, energy was there, we make some hits, we did what he [Coach Dale Hunter] ask us to do and I think if we going to play the same way we going to get some success,” finished the Gr8.

Once again, baby steps.

Notes: The Caps had 8 shots in the last 20 minutes after getting only 11 in the first 40. Backstrom had a great chance to tie it up late with Vokoun pulled but couldn’t connect…Washington lost the face-off battle 22-21 but that was decent considering they lost eight of the first 11 draws…Marcus Johansson sustained a hand stinger in period two and missed a lot of time. He played only 11:02 as a result…John Carlson led the team in ice time with 23:30 but he did go back lazily late in the third period to allow a Blues forward to beat him to the puck and wipe out what would have been icing. I imagine Hunter will let #74 hear about that one…St. Louis out hit the Caps 35-32. Ovechkin had 4 hits as did Chimera…the Blues went 0 for 4 on the power play. The Caps were 0 for 1 in only 20 seconds of man advantage time…after the game the Capitals announced that former Washington defensemen Jim Johnson will take over for Bob Woods as an assistant coach. Johnson’s job is obviously to get the defensemen to play better.