It was odd to go into the same locker room at Verizon, the same media post game press room, stare at the home bench from the press box, and know Bruce Boudreau wasn’t going to be there last night.
If it feels a bit odd to a reporter, I can only imagine what the players are going through right now.
And no wonder. Finding out Monday morning your coach is gone, coming to the rink for a practice you’re not sure will be run differently from your normal routine (and, even if drills stay the same, it’s going to feel different), facing a gauntlet of media interviews asking you about a sensitive subject, then knowing you have to somehow get it all together enough to play a solid game the following night—less than 48 hours after you initially heard the news about your coach.
Post-game Tuesday, after the Capitals’ 2-1 defeat, it was definitely not an upbeat locker room. But the players patiently dissected 60 minutes of game time for reporters.
Mike Knuble acknowledged it would have been nice to get a win for Dale Hunter’s first game.
“For us, the rest of the year is going to be such a fine line between winning and losing,” Knuble said. “And it just comes down to one little play here and there. That’s going to be the difference. I expect we’re going to see a lot of games like this, where we’re holding the lead later or trying to push for a goal late.”
The one goal that the Capitals had, however, was an excellent move by Alex Ovechkin tearing down the right side of the ice. He drew two defensemen, per usual, but he landed a perfect pass between them to Nicklas Backstrom coming down the center with Troy Brouwer. Backstrom then buried the puck past Jaroslav Halak.
However, when asked whether Hunter had tried to adjust anything to help convert the now-standard double coverage on Ovechkin breakways into points, linemate Brouwer said the focus still has been more on the defensive and neutral zones.
“He’s [Hunter’s] more worried about our defensive zone and our neutral zone play,” Brouwer said. “In the offensive zone, he just wants us to be creative, do what makes us successful.”
The Capitals ended up losing the shots on goal contest 30-19, but they also managed to kill off a huge 5 on 3 penalty in the second period after Brooks Laich got sent to the box for tripping and Brouwer followed soon afterwards for a high-sticking double minor that drew blood from former Capitals player and now the Blues’ man Jason Arnott.
The initial penalty killing unit of Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble and Karl Azner did such a good job, however, that the puck ended up in St. Louis’ zone and Backstrom drew a penalty.
“I thought that was a big point in the hockey game, really kept us in it, “Laich said of the 5 on 3. At the time, the score was tied at 1, until Matt D’Agostini scored the game winner in the second on a wrap around and a wide open net that Tomas Vokoun couldn’t get back to defend in time.
The reassuring presence of the night was Dale Hunter behind the coach’s podium. It didn’t seem like the hype or the loss got to him. He appeared ready to assess and improve.
“The guys worked hard tonight,” Hunter said. “They competed real hard. … And that’s what you need to win.”
Hunter said he saw improvement in that there were no odd-man rushes Tuesday against his team, but he said the forechecks have to be better, as well as the d-zone coverage.
“[There are] some habits to break around here and to get Dale’s way going,” Knuble said.
On the opposing bench was a team that knew something of what the Capitals were going through. The St. Louis Blues brought Ken Hitchcock on board in November and rolled to a 8-1-2 record in his 11 games. And it began with a 3-0 win over the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blues’ T.J. Oshie, who had a goal against the Capitals Tuesday, said it didn’t take long for the Blues to buy into Hitchcock’s system. And while he said winning that first game helped, there was an effort to make a good impression in front of a new coach for the first several games, and the Blues haven’t let up since.
“A couple more smiles, obviously, with the wins coming,” Oshie said when asked what difference he’s noticed in locker room emotions on the run.
The Capitals’ transition may be a bit more complicated than the Blues –Davis Payne was only coach a little over a season and a half compared to Bruce Boudreau’s four years—but if there’s a game that can get the Capitals going emotionally, it will no doubt be Thursday’s battle against Pittsburgh.
Here’s hoping the smiles come back then.