Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Changes put Blues, Caps on different paths
By Scott Burnside
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- If there is a poster team for firing your coach, it's the St. Louis Blues.
In 11 games since general manager Doug Armstrong shocked the hockey world by dispatching Davis Payne and installing veteran head coach Ken Hitchcock behind the bench, the Blues have been virtually unstoppable.
Tuesday night, they spoiled the NHL coaching debut of former Washington captain Dale Hunter by stealing a 2-1 victory over the Capitals that ran Hitchcock's record to 8-1-2 in St. Louis, a record that includes victories over top opponents like Pittsburgh (with Sidney Crosby in the lineup), Chicago, Detroit and Southeast Division-leading Florida.
"We played a heck of a hockey game," Hitchcock said after St. Louis limited the Caps to 11 shots through two periods and 19 overall. "We created a lot of scoring chances, we didn't give up anything in two periods. We created a lot for ourselves.
"We're starting to dial into playing the game the way we need to play to win hockey games."
"You can't set a time frame to it," Dale Hunter said, "but I want them to get better and better every game. ... By watching them live now, we've got some stuff to work on."
All teams would fire their coaches if they thought they would be guaranteed the kind of run the Blues are on. But, that's not how life works. The reality is that when a general manager makes a move like George McPhee did Monday morning in dispatching Bruce Boudreau and installing Hunter, who had never coached a pro game of any kind before Tuesday, he does so with the understanding that the desired change may not be evident immediately, regardless of how seamless the transition has been in St. Louis.
"This is going to be a process," McPhee told ESPN.com during Tuesday's game.
"This is a team that's not playing with very much confidence right now."
The loss was the third straight for the struggling Capitals, who have now gone 5-10-1 since starting the season on a 7-0 tear.
Although the two teams have gone through the disruptive process of making a coaching change in recent days, the two dressing rooms represented the divergent paths such changes can produce.
In the Blues dressing room, there is talk of Hitchcock's calming influence, his ability to react quickly during the game and the team's unwavering belief in the game plan.
"When he sees us kind of straying from what we should be doing, he's been very quick to correct it," veteran defenseman Barret Jackman said.
"I think the biggest thing he's brought to our club is experience and a calming voice," said Alexander Steen, who drew an assist on the Blues' first goal.
"There's no panic button."
Tuesday's game was more of the same for an injury-depleted Blues team that came away with two points in what has historically been a very difficult building for visiting teams. The Blues have not surrendered more than three goals in a contest and have climbed to the top or close to the top of the league in most defensive categories.
"It doesn't matter who's in or who's out, when you play this well it's a good feeling," Hitchcock said.
In the wake of yet another loss, the discussion in the Caps' room was about moral victories, of the small steps they'll need to take to reverse a trend that has seen them plummet from the top of the Eastern Conference standings.
"We competed and we played smart," Hunter said.
Nicklas Backstrom gave the Caps a 1-0 lead off a nice feed from beleaguered captain Alex Ovechkin. T.J. Oshie tied the game before the end of the first period. Then midway through the second, Matt D'Agostini scored on a wraparound, and the Capitals were denied the rest of the way.
The Capitals did kill off four St. Louis power plays, including a 5-on-3 that was cut short by a Blues penalty. Late in the third period, they did pressure the Blues and netminder Jaroslav Halak, the man who stunned the Caps while in net for Montreal during a first-round upset of Washington in 2010.
It was more than a little ironic that with Washington netminder Tomas Vokoun on the bench for an extra attacker it was Ovechkin who had the final shot of the game, whistling a slapshot just wide as time ran out.
Ovechkin played just 16:46, although penalty issues in the second period contributed to a truncated amount of ice time.
"I thought he was pretty much out there a lot in the third," Hunter said.
Although he delivered a couple of decent hits, Ovechkin had just one shot on goal and the loss represented yet another home game without a goal for the former scoring champ who has tallied just once at Verizon Center this season.
The spotlight on Ovechkin and the Caps won't grow much dimmer in the next 48 hours as red-hot Sidney Crosby and the Penguins come to town for the first clash between the two superstars since the Winter Classic.
For Hunter, though, that game will merely represent a second chance to try to get his new team pointed in a new direction, another step toward what he and the Capitals hope will be some kind of light at the end of the tunnel.
"I have a feeling games are going to be really tight like they were tonight," veteran Mike Knuble said.
"If we're going to err on a side, I think he wants us to stay on the side of caution, maybe live to fight another time and get the puck out. Don't step up and take a chance. If you do, don't be 50-50 or even be 80-20. If you're stepping up, you'd better be 100 percent you'll get that puck and you better get it or don't come back to the bench."