WASHINGTON – The last time Dale Hunter was a formal member of the Washington Capitals was in the 1998-’99 season, when the former center played in 50 games with the Capitals. That season, Hunter recorded five points for Washington – all assists – in the final campaign of his illustrious time with the Capitals.
More than a decade later, Hunter finds himself facing a different kind of challenge in Washington. Hunter, who left his post as head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s London Knights, was behind the bench as the Capitals head coach for the first time Tuesday night as Washington fell to St. Louis, 2-1, in front of an announced 18,506 fans at Verizon Center.
Goals were scored by T.J. Oshie and Matt D’Agostini for St. Louis (14-8-2, 30 points) and by Nicklas Backstrom for Washington (12-10-1, 25 points). The Capitals struggled to generate offense aside from a late push in the dwindling moments of the third period. The Capitals only had 11 shots on Blues netminder Jaroslav Halak through the first two periods and just 19 for the game, as opposed to the Blues’ total of 30. The Capitals struggled with breaking the puck out of their own zone, meaning the Capitals struggled with quickly transitioning from the defensive end to the offensive end.
“With transition, they don’t got it down pat yet,” Hunter said. “But I think they got better as they game went on. They competed real hard, which is the important thing.
“We gotta be good defensively so we can be good offensively and get the odd-man rushes and let them get caught. And cycle the puck. Cycle teams just not win in the regular season but it really wins in the playoffs, too.”
Hunter also said that the Capitals need to improve their forecheck to pressure the opposing defensemen and that their defensive zone coverage needs to improve, as well.
John Carlson, a former London Knight, played for Hunter during London’s 2008-’09 season. Carlson, along with fellow defenseman Dennis Wideman, is one of two Capitals to have played for Hunter in the past. Carlson skated a team-high 23:30 for Hunter. Karl Alzner and Dennis Wideman were the only others to skate more than 20 minutes.
“I think that no coach has a super plan that no one’s used to,” Carlson said. “It’s just little tweaks. Styles of coaching change a little bit, but it’s not drastic. We should be able to adapt to those little changes early and I think that we did that tonight.”
Hunter inherited a team from former head coach Bruce Boudreau that had lost 10 of its last 15 games before Hunter arrived, and now 11 of out of its last 16. Hunter has limited time in the short-term due to implement his systems and schemes a busy schedule of games this week, including Pittsburgh Thursday and Ottawa Saturday.
“It’s not like three days off or something where you can really hammer it home,” said Hunter of the systems he has to implement. “So it’s a slow process because you can’t skate them long tomorrow because we have to play the next day. And after a game like this, it’s tough on you. Your body’s gotta recover so you’re ready for Thursday, so it’s just video and a little bit on the ice.”