There was a collective sigh of relief from Capitals Nation on Saturday night as Brooks Laich’s game winning goal just 12 seconds into overtime broke a four game losing streak for Washington and gave the Caps their first win under new coach Dale Hunter in three tries. It was a victory the team badly needed and more importantly, they played extremely well for most of the contest despite having to go to extra time to emerge victorious.
When you score only one goal in each of your first two games under a new coach the fans become restless, and there was no doubt that was the case for several portions of Saturday’s game at the Verizon Center. There were many groans and periods of quiet at the normally positive and electric Caps venue. Had the Capitals lost this game in overtime I am sure there would be many out on the ledge ready to jump or were going to start second guessing General Manager George McPhee for firing Bruce Boudreau and replacing him with the Caps legend. But that is the fanatical nature of fans.
Luckily the fans don’t run the ship, because anyone who has paid close attention to the three games this week is seeing a drastically different style of play that Hunter has instituted. Gone is the zone defense in their own zone since the new coach prefers a man to man approach. In addition, the neutral zone has been changed with the Capitals playing a trapping 1-2-2 system. There is a greater emphasis on backchecking and forcing the opponent into turnovers that should lead to transition rushes and hopefully of the odd man break variety. In short, Hunter was asking his players to change the way they play on the fly without a training camp or several practices in a row to implement it. So naturally, with an emphasis on improving their overall team defense, the offensive side of the house paid the price.
What happened on Tuesday and Thursday against the Blues and Penguins, respectively, was the Caps were still playing the game by thinking first before executing. It is a recipe for big trouble so for Washington to just lose 2-1 in each of the first two games was pretty amazing, to me. Hockey is a game that is played fast with great emotion that, at the NHL level, if you aren’t operating on instinct, will lead to lost puck battles and ultimately defeat. Finally, on Saturday night against the Senators it appeared that after two games and three practices that much of what Hunter was preaching was starting to ooze into the players system and as a result, the Caps dominated much of this affair. They were working hard and executing his “pulley” forechecking system and as a result this game could have easily been a Washington blowout.
“They’re getting it and that’s why we got some great opportunities tonight and we should’ve scored more, but good goalie on the other side, and we missed the net a few times. As long as you get your chances, that’s what I worry about,” commented Hunter afterwards.
There is no doubt in my mind that this coaching change was the right one. Hunter has the players buying in so far and when they watch the tape of this one they will believe even more. Scoring chances aren’t officially kept by the league, but the Capitals dominated that stat, despite the overall shots on goal total being 35-34. But as Dale said, shots on net don’t matter much to him, it’s about the scoring opportunities and his club had a decided advantage there tonight. This game was proof to me that the team is going in the right direction and if they keep it up, will start winning a large majority of their hockey games.
I, along with Transition Game author Ted Starkey, had the chance to catch up with former Capitals Coach Bryan Murray, who currently is the Ottawa Senators General Manager, to discuss this week’s coaching change in Washington. There are many nice and classy people in hockey, that is one reason why I love the game so much, and Murray is a guy I will put up against anyone in those two categories. To this day he still holds the franchise mark for tenure as a Caps head coach (over 8 years) so I wanted to get his overall take on Hunter as a player and what he thought of him as a junior coach. Naturally, he had nothing but praise for #32.
“Dale gave us a whole new way of playing the game, hard, competitive, but he had a good skill level. Passed the puck real well. Whoever played with him would benefit from his competitiveness and ability to make plays and score goals. I think it just turned the franchise into a position where we knew we could compete every night and have a chance to be one of the top teams in the league,” said Murray on what the acquisition of Hunter, the player, meant to the Caps back in June of 1987.
“At the beginning when [he and brother Mark] bought the franchise, I knew that Dale was probably more inclined to be in recruiting. At least I thought that, then I see him coach and [when I was with Anaheim] we drafted Corey Perry from his team and we saw him coach a fair amount after that. The one thing Dale did was he developed young players and the good players, the guys that were going to be stars, he played them a lot of minutes and helped them become stars. The good players benefitted from that at the junior level and that’s why I think he’ll be a good coach in the NHL,” added Murray on Hunter’s evolution as a coach.
Finally, I asked Murray what his thoughts were when Hunter was named Caps head coach, given his previous relationship with the former Capitals captain.
“It was Washington, and I don’t know this, but probably the only place because of his circumstance in London where they owned the franchise and they did very well financially as well as developing players it was only going to be in Washington in my thought. I thought good for him, if they were going to have another coach come in, because we had certainly had great considerations about Dale a couple of years ago, and then things happened and it didn’t work at all and I had a feeling at that time that he wanted to stay in London. Good for him to take the challenge on here and rectify a problem,” finished Murray, admitting that he thought so highly of Hunter himself that he tried to bring him on as his own coach in the recent past
The conversation with Murray was just another reinforcement to me that McPhee made the right decision in bringing Hunter on to guide this club. McPhee had a major problem on his hands, much like Bryan had back in the mid-80’s when he was coaching a team that would do well in the regular season and not perform in the playoffs. Hunter came in then and turned the Capitals into a team that was harder to play against and given what Murray said and what I’ve witnessed just this week in three games, this current Caps team is learning to be a squad that does that as well.
Notes: The Caps are in Florida on Monday night to take on the first place Panthers at 730 pm. This should be another strong test to see how the Capitals are progressing under Hunter’s new system…the new coach played his top players extra on Saturday. Alexander Ovechkin had 20:55 of ice time (1 beautiful assist on Troy Brouwer’s goal and +1) while Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal) logged 20:15…Dennis Wideman played his best game in weeks going +2 in 22:10…John Carlson led the team in ice time with 25:11…Alexander Semin was scratched with an upper body injury. He apparently has a shoulder issue that was likely the result of Jordan Staal’s charging penalty on #28 on Thursday…Michal Neuvirth got the start on Saturday and played suberb (32 saves).