All eyes were on the ice when the Washington Capitals squared off against the St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, November 30th. It was their first game under new head coach Dale Hunter. Hunter had just been named as the replacement for Bruce Boudreau; a man who had reached 200 career wins as a head coach faster than anyone else in history, the day before — not much time to make many dramatic changes.
A couple of changes were obvious, nonetheless. The first was the absence (a healthy scratch) of #55, Jeff Schultz. This was only the second time this season that Schultz has sat out a game. The long-term significance of this change, if any, is not clear at this point, but most Caps fans would not be sad to see him go. The reasons for this view would fill an entire article, but suffice it to say that listening to the yells in Verizon Center would provide sufficient credence to make the reader understand the premise.
The second was in the warm-up drills. The Capitals spent a great deal of the warm-up period practicing three man rushes with lots of short sharp passes on the way to the goal. It seemed to bode well for Hunter’s opening game behind the bench.
The Capitals went on to play an adequate game against a team ranked in the top third of the league in ESPN’s power rankings (of note, the Caps have fallen from 1st to 22nd over the past five weeks). They didn’t look sharp, although they did hustle and skate hard for the majority of the game. The two biggest areas of concern were giveaways — the Caps coughed up the puck 16 times, the Blues only five — and lack of offensive firepower. The Capitals managed only 19 shots compared to 30 for St. Louis.
Most of the crowd in the Verizon Center — at least by this correspondent’s assessment — were satisfied with the Caps level of play, although clearly disappointed in the outcome.
Fast-forward two days to Thursday, December 1st. Skating into the ‘Phone Booth’ come Sydney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins. As has been written before, Washington has ‘owned’ the Penguins during the regular season. Not last night, however. Pittsburgh lit the lamp twice — Washington, only once. Physically, the Caps dominated the game, delivering 43 hits compared to 28 for the Pens and winning 37 of 54 faceoffs. Again, however the Capitals gave the puck away far too many times: 16 compared to only eight for Pittsburgh. And again, the vaunted Washington offense was stymied, managing only 17 shots to the Penguins’ 35.
So, where does that leave Dale Hunter besides winless as an NHL head coach? Number one on his list has to be to get the Caps to send more rubber at the net. Waiting for the ‘perfect shot’ is not working, especially during power plays. Second, his players need to do a much better job of holding onto the puck. Giveaways are what hurt them the most in the final days of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure — they resulted in more odd man rushes than our goalies could count.
And, finally, he must address the elephant in the room. Alex Ovechkin is not playing up to his potential. Everyone who has ever watch #8 knows the magic, grit, and determination of which he is capable. Hunter needs to figure out how to get Alex back to being Alex.
If he manages to do those three things, the Capitals will be back to their winning ways in short order. Washington fans are holding their breath, waiting for that to happen.
Let’s Go Caps!