November 29 vs. St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center
Time: 7:00 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. Two-Man Advantage at 5 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com
St. Louis Blues (13-8-2)
Washington Capitals (12-9-1)
A new era starts in Washington on Tuesday night when the St. Louis Blues come to town. The Capitals open a three-game homestand against the Blues, and they do so with a new man at the helm. Longtime Caps great Dale Hunter makes his NHL head-coaching debut in the game against St. Louis, a day after taking over the reins of the team from Bruce Boudreau.
“First and foremost everybody knows his track record as a player and what he accomplished on the ice and what type of player he was,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble of Hunter. “I think that’ll carry a lot of respect. It sort of puts you on edge that when a guy is talking about it you know he’s done it and you know he’s done it well in our league for a long time.”
Hunter spent 19 years playing in the NHL, and his No. 32 sweater hangs from the Verizon Center rafters. He spent the last 11 years coaching the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League, where he was the fastest coach in league history to reach 300 and 400 wins.
“Hopefully the same things he brought as a player,” says Caps general manager George McPhee when asked what he expects Hunter to bring to the team. “Obviously Dale was an intelligent player; he had talent, and he was tough. And he was downright mean sometimes. We probably won’t see a player like that again for a while. You don’t see numbers like the numbers he’s had. But he played 19 years in this league, and I think the best thing you could ever say about Dale Hunter is whether the game was home or away, whether he was injured or healthy, or whether we were winning or losing, that guy played the same way every night. And it was hard.”
After roaring out to a franchise record 7-0 start this season, the Caps have sputtered badly of late. They’ve gone 5-9-1 in their last 15 games, and have surrendered 45 goals in their last 11 games.
Saturday’s listless 5-1 loss to the injury-depleted Sabres in Buffalo proved to be Boudreau’s last game behind the Washington bench; he departs after a four-year run and as the most successful coach in the team’s history (201-88-40).
“We are not the kind of team that should be going through it,” says goaltender Tomas Vokoun of the team’s current struggles, “but we are. Saying that, we have a good team but we haven’t shown enough of that, especially of late. They felt like they had to make a change.”
Last season, Washington allowed an average of 2.33 goals per game, the fourth lowest in the NHL and the best mark in franchise history. Through 22 games of the 2011-12 campaign, the Capitals have allowed an average of 3.27 goals per game. That mark ranks 29th in the NHL.
“It starts with pride,” says Caps center Brooks Laich when asked what the Caps need to do to get out of their defensive malaise. “Defense is all about pride and understanding consequences is the other thing. For myself, when I’m matched up with a top line player like a [Steven] Stamkos or a [Ryan] Getzlaf, you take a sense of pride in trying to shut them down.
“The other thing is you have to be aware on the ice. You have to understand that at the far blue line, it’s important to get this puck in because otherwise they may make a rush down. You have to understand consequences to play defense. I said it before the season [started]; I still stand by it. I think this team should be No. 1 defensively in the league. We were No. 4 last year after only playing solid defensively for four months. It’s still something I stand by.
“I think for us to be successful, that’s the foundation for it. It makes us tough to play against. Speaking to Mr. Hunter this morning, he’s preached the same sort of thing. He wants us to be solid defensively, and from there we’ll build our game up.”
Washington has allowed three or more goals in eight straight games for the first time in more than four and a half years. Earlier in the season, the Caps had a run in which they allowed two or fewer goals in six straight contests.
Defensemen Dennis Wideman and John Carlson both played for Hunter in London. Wideman was asked to describe his former junior coach.
“I would say intense but fair,” says the Caps blueliner of Hunter. “He’s hard on you and he expects a lot out if his players. But he’s fair. He’s going to lay it down and it’s going to be hard.”
What is it that the Caps need that Hunter can give them?
“Probably a little bit more accountability with the players,” says Wideman, “hopefully a little more intensity and a little more defensive consciousness.”
“We just need to play up to our potential, I think,” says Laich. “The identity is still there. The players are still great players.”
“We’re a good team that’s just played mediocre,” adds Knuble. “When you get the team playing good again you’ll see a significant bounce, I think.”
The Blues are still experiencing that “bounce” Knuble speaks of. St. Louis replaced Davis Payne behind its bench with veteran NHL coach Ken Hitchcock. The Blues have had some strong early results from the move, going 7-1-2 in 10 games since the switch.
St. Louis features the league’s best defense, having allowed just 2.04 goals per game. The Blues have been particularly stingy since Hitchcock took the reins, allowing a grand total of 12 goals in those 10 games.
The Blues have allowed three goals once, two goals three times, one goal three times, and they’ve fashioned three shutouts under Hitchcock.
St. Louis has also limited opponents to fewer than 30 shots on goal in eight of the 10 games since Hitchcock took over. For the season, the Blues have allowed an average of just 25.9 shots on goal per game, the best mark in the NHL.
Blues goaltender Brian Elliott leads the NHL with a 1.31 GAA and a .951 save pct. He is 10-1 in a dozen games this season.