Capitals adjusting to coaching change

November, 29, 2011
11/29/11
2:42
PM ET

ARLINGTON, Va. -- There is perhaps no more curious place in sport than an NHL locker room the day after a coach has been fired.

The energy is different ... a little off, a little manic. A group of men who thrive on continuity and routine must now embrace a different vibe.

In the past, former Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau often would meet with media while his team went through drills at the team's practice facility on game-day mornings. Boudreau, however, was nowhere to be seen Tuesday a day after being dismissed from his post.

Instead, former Washington captain Dale Hunter was on the ice and later met with players for some 45 minutes before speaking with media gathered to chronicle the start of the Hunter era.

"Just strange days," said Capitals veteran winger Mike Knuble. "That's part of the challenge. You do the best you can tonight. You just want to get yourself going and play the game. It's still a hockey game. It's a challenge to play for a new coach, and a lot of things have happened in the last 24 hours."

[+] EnlargeAlex Ovechkin and Dale Hunter
Patrick McDermott/Getty ImagesDale Hunter, right, will coach his first NHL game tonight with Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals.

So much the same, so much changed in the course of a day.

Hunter, the longtime owner and coach of the successful London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, flew into town Monday with his one suitcase and one blue game suit -- "I only got one suit anyways," Hunter quipped -- and will coach his first NHL game Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues.

And so begins the process of unlearning the old and learning the new, whatever that might entail in terms of philosophies and systems. "You don't get practice time," Knuble said.

That's generally not how these situations work.

The old coach has preached certain habits.

"Even if you don't agree with all those habits, you've got to change them slowly," Knuble said. "You can't just say, 'I don't like this, I don't like this, I don't like this; I like that, I don't like this.' I'm sure [Hunter is] keeping that to himself, and that's what you implement over time. Players, you kind of just go off the basics, play as well as you can. Some guys will thrive; some guys will struggle a little bit."

Along with tactical elements, there also will be the emotional component of having watched a coach lose his job in large part because a team with a wealth of talent couldn't continue to move forward. After a 7-0-0 start, the Capitals have been a miserable 5-9-1 since; in some ways, it is a record that flatters them given their curiously uneven play of late.

"It's a little weird, but at the same time, that's the situation, and I think with Dale's experience it can be really good," said Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, who leads the team with 25 points but is a
minus-6 on the season. "He knows a lot about hockey because he played the game, too, and he's been very successful in Ontario up there, and I think so far he seems good. Hopefully we can give him a win on his first night."

Backstrom agreed that the change represents a new chapter for a team that was tied with New Jersey for the eighth and final playoff berth in the East as of Tuesday morning.

"Absolutely. We've got to start winning hockey games. I think it's a really good thing to do, get a new voice in the locker room and stuff like that," he said. "Yeah, it's a new chapter. That's how it's going to be."

At one point during the morning skate, Hunter was chatting with captain Alex Ovechkin. The two-time Hart Trophy winner will be the focal point as this team struggles to regain its mojo. Hunter said he spoke with Ovechkin about the slumping power play but noted he'll be talking to all the players at some point.

As for whether Ovechkin can lead this team in the spirit of the rough-and-tumble Hunter, the new coach wasn't about to go down that road, at least not before his first game.

"You know something, there's always different captains," Hunter said. "I didn't score 50 goals, either, you know what I mean? A lot of captains, they lead on the ice, playing hard, hitting people and scoring goals, and some are more vocal in the dressing room. Everybody has to be their own type of captain and be a leader that way."

That said, it will be a shock if Ovechkin does not find himself with more ice time with which to prove he is still one of the game's elite players, something he has failed to show in the past 100 games or so.

"He's got to be a big part of the game every night if we intend to win, plus other guys, too," Hunter said. "But he'll be a big part, and in the dressing room, he's got to give these guys confidence, and we've got to be confident, and he's got to get everybody's confidence back."

Ovechkin said he understands that the coaching change represents a significant challenge for him and the rest of the leaders in the room.

"I think it's new for the whole team," Ovechkin said. "Bruce was here almost five years. ... Right now, it's a new challenge for us. You can see when we didn't play well what's going to happen. It's kind of a wake-up call for us, a huge wake-up call for us."

Does he take responsibility for the change?

"Of course. Again, it's not about one player," he said. "Of course I'm the leader of the team and I have to play better, I have to make some points, I have to score goals, but I try to do that. Sometimes it works; sometimes it [does] not."

In a few hours, the Hunter era will officially begin for the Capitals. The moment the puck drops, the memories of the Boudreau era will begin to fade. That's the nature of the business, no matter how callous that may be.

"Yeah, you feel bad for Bruce because you know he put a lot of time and his heart and soul in this team," Knuble said. "At the end of the day, he can walk out of here pretty proud that he gave everything he had. It's just kind of the way things worked out. As a player, you always have that twinge of guilt when a guy gets let go, that you had something to do with it, but at the same time, it's a new day and it's pro sports and you've got to keep going."

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