WASHINGTON — — Former Washington Capitals great Dale Hunter earned the applause of the sellout crowd Tuesday night at Verizon Center for his NHL coaching debut behind the home team's bench.
There were video montages of his fights and goals, replays of Hunter's memorable playoff goal in 1988 against the Philadelphia Flyers and No. 32 jerseys in the seats. But by the midway point of their game against the St. Louis Blues, nostalgia gave way to the realization that there is plenty of work for Hunter and the Capitals to do.
St. Louis spoiled his return by capturing a 2-1 victory over the Capitals, who have suffered three straight defeats and are 2-6-0 in their past eight games. It was the fifth time in the stretch Washington was held to one goal.
"They got better as it went on. They competed real hard, and that's what you need to win," Hunter said. "You can't set a time period to it, but I want them to get better and better every game, after every practice. … We've got some stuff to work on."
While Washington demonstrated more hustle and won more individual battles than in the last two losses of the Bruce Boudreau era, the team still lacked poise in the defensive zone and routinely found itself hemmed in its own end.
The Capitals struggled to sustain much offensive pressure until the third period against a St. Louis squad fresh off a coaching change of its own. The Blues, however, entered the matchup having already played 10 games under new coach Ken Hitchcock and they are 8-1-2 under their new boss, playing his smothering, trapping style to near-perfection.
Washington took a 1-0 lead 10 minutes into the contest on a goal created by Alex Ovechkin's energy as he carried the puck over the blue line and down the right side, drawing two Blues. Ovechkin passed to an unguarded Nicklas Backstrom, who was between the hashmarks, and Washington's top center shot the puck under the right pad of goaltender Jaroslav Halak (18 saves).
St. Louis responded a little over five minutes later when T.J. Oshie beat Karl Alzner to a rebound that came off the crossbar and knocked the puck into an empty net behind Tomas Vokoun (28 saves) to tie it.
It was a defensive breakdown and considering that some of Hunter's biggest alterations to the Capitals' strategies stem from defensive zone coverage, players acknowledged that they will be learning on the fly.
"It's going to take months to perfect," Brooks Laich said. "In the D-zone we want to be a lot more aggressive. Traditionally, you want to have a defenseman in front of the net, but he's preaching for us to get out. Maybe a little more man-to-man."
The Blues took a 2-1 lead 8:54 into the second period when a shot by Matt D'Agostini hit Vokoun's arm and bounced out in front. St. Louis center Patrik Berglund fed the puck behind the net to D'Agostini, who wrapped around the cage to shoot into the open net.
Washington came out with more offensive gumption in the third period but still only mustered eight shots on goal and wasn't able to put another shot past Halak.
It certainly wasn't an ideal start to Hunter's tenure as Washington's coach, but the players said there's no doubt that their new director will make plenty sure to point out what he wants in the coming days of practice and games.
"I think Dale's going to keep pounding the system into us," center Matt Hendricks said.