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Capitals Mired In Mediocrity Means McPhee Has decisions To Make

December 20, 2011 in Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, George McPhee, NHL, NHL Eastern Conference, Washington Capitals

McPhee out front on every issue is one of NHL's best GM's

Since November 6, 20 percent of National Hockey League teams have fired their head coach. The carousel began in St. Louis, when after a 6-7 start, Davis Payne was fired. Replacing Payne as the first of six new head coaches would be ken Hitchcock, who last coached the Columbus Blue jackets during the 2009-10 season and was himself fired after 58 games.

The 22 days between Payne's firing, and what was coming can only be described as the calm before the storm. On November-28, the unemployment rate would rise by two, as two teams form the Southeast division delivered pink slips in one day.

Our beloved Bruce Boudreau was shown the door in Washington, and Paul Maurice in Carolina.

Former Capitals tough man and team captain dale Hunter replaced gabby in D.C, and Captain Kirk Muller now patrols the back of their bench in Raleigh on game days. These firings occurred less than 25 games into the season for all three teams, but this just marked the halfway point of the in-season firings for six NHL teams

Two days later, the Anaheim Ducks fired Randy Carlyle, who led Anaheim to their only Stanley Cup win back in 2007 and brought in Bruce Boudreau. Depending on whom you ask, the former Caps coach was unemployed for less than 72 hours.

Are you still with me, because the Ducks neighbors, just 30 miles north up I-5, sent former Capitalshead coach, Terry Murray packing on December 12. Kings GM Dean Lombardi fired Murray one win shy of his 500th NHL victory. Lombardi turned the team over to coach John Stevens on an interim basis, and officially settled on convincing veteran head coach, and former Flames GM, Darryl Sutter, to take the job.

Sutter takes control Thursday night at home against, and I swear I'm not making this up, the Anaheim Ducks.

Not to be outdone, the NHL's most storied franchise jumped on the bandwagon, as the Montreal Canadiens fired Jacques Martin on Saturday, and replaced him with his assistant, Randy Cunneyworth, also on an interim basis.

What all of these teams, except for the St. Louis Blues, and including the Capitals have in common is a new coach has provided no lift for their teams.

It is too early to tell in LA, and Montreal, but the Kings are 1-2, and the Habs dropped a 5-3 decision to the visiting Devils at home on Saturday night. However, the Ducks, Hurricanes, and Capitals are a combined 8-15-3 since their new bosses took over. That’s a winning percentage of just .308, and only the Blues, who are 13-2-4 with Hitchcock at the helm, seem firmly headed in the right direction.

With no new coach bump, GM’s from all six teams may be inclined to start cleaning house, and if you think firing six head coaches before Christmas is dramatic, just watch all of the trades after the holidays if these teams don’t turn things around.

That brings me full circle back to the Washington Capitals and the next step in General manager George McPhee's process. If you believe that when things go south, the head coach is the first to go, then McPhee was right in firing Boudreau.

However, many are starting to concede, myself included, that the Capitals problems are directly on the ice. Washington is undergoing their third major system change in four years, and while you could argue that’s too many, and it’s possible that this team doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going on game nights, I would argue that the Capitals are playing like bored kids that are too smart for their own good.

It starts with team captain Alexander Ovechkin and his unwillingness during the Boudreau days to make the necessary changes to turn his game around. The former Caps head coach asked several things from his captain, none of which Ovechkin complied with.

According to published reports, Boudreau moved Ovechkin to the wall on the power play. Ovechkin refused, and said he felt more comfortable on the point. Gabby and his staff implored Ovechkin to change his strategy on the attack for more than a year. Go wide instead of cutting to the middle, they told him. Use teammates instead of squeezing off low-percentage shots.

Ovechkin did what he wanted, and how he wanted. The result was the firing of Boudreau. You have to have a teachable attitude, even superstar players have to be coachable, and it appears Ovechkin is not. Boudreau and his staff begged Ovechkin to be more responsible in the defensive end, yet he could be seen on many nights, and especially during the two losses that cost Boudreau his job floating in his own zone and leaving it prematurely. At one point this season, Captain Ovie possessed the worst plus-minus rating on his team.

Boudreau wanted to distribute playing time according to current on ice performance, Ovechkin simply felt entitled to be out there, regardless of scoring slumps, and defensive lapses. Boudreau's approach of holding every player accountable for their poor play, and lack of hustle, which included the Great 8, seem to strike a nerve in some of the teams so called superstars.

The Capitals, for the most part, reacted like adolescent teenagers and quit on Boudreau. They dropped two games (Nov-19 & Nov 26) to the Maple Leafs, and Sabres by a combined score of 12-2, as both teams were missing a combined 16 regular skaters. The loss to Buffalo was the final nail in Gabby's coffin, as he was fired on Monday morning, following the Saturday night loss in Buffalo.

It’s obvious, that with Washington showing just flashes of solid play during the nine games that Hunter has been behind the bench, the time is quickly coming for McPhee to enact phase two, shaking up the on ice roster by trading away some of the bigger name superstars.

At this point, McPhee needs to make a few calls and see what the market bears for some of his top players, and that also includes the Great 8. Players such as Mike Green, Alex Semin, Brooks Laich, and any one of the three goalies, could be apart of a blockbuster deal that could shake up the foundation of the Capitals less than excitable roster.

To me it’s time to ship Vokoun back out of town and allow Michael Neuvirth, and Braden Holtby, currently in Hershey, a chance to grow with their team. If the Caps are unwilling to part with Vokoun, or stick with Neuvirth on a more consistent basis, then Neuvy and Holtby need to be playing, even if it’s in the minors. Platooning them back and forth to Washington would probably be in the best interest of both in terms of more playing time. Seeing more pucks is seeing more pucks, period!

The only player that should be considered untouchable is Nicklas Backstrom. Of the high powered European/Russian talent skating on the Caps top two lines, only Backstrom seemed to come to camp ready to work hard for 60 minutes of every game. Only No.19 seems to be willing to address the flaws in his game.

You can make excuses for the Capitals and say defenseman Mike Green has been out since Nov. 11 and he's only played in eight of the team's 31 games. When Green has played, the Caps are undefeated with an 8-0 mark. When he hasn't, which is just about every night, Washington is 8-14-1.

The Caps lack serious scoring depth as they still need a legitimate No. 2 center. The hardnosed North American game is often brushed aside for the fancier European speed game. The Caps need a captain that is all in, and Ovechkin seems far from it at times.

That would, and should be the next step McPhee explores. If Ovechkin cares about the team he frequently calls his family, then he will do whatever is necessary to see that his “family” is a cohesiveunit ready to make a serious playoff run come spring.

Ovechkin may feel he is captain material, but the numbers certainly do not prove that. Prior to becoming the Capitals 14th team captain in franchise history, Ovechkin scored 246 goals in 348 games, and led the NHL in 2008 with 65, and again in 09 with 56 markers.

Since taking the “C”, the Great 8 has been very average in terms of Ovie like numbers with just 65 total goals in 148 games. Once considered untouchable, the Capitals would be silly to turn a few high first round draft picks, and a solid North American style player for him.

With the way young players are succeeding in the NHL these days, the Caps could be set for an even longer period of time that originally thought by dealing Ovechkin. Can you imagine if McPhee could somehow pull a blockbuster deal with the Kings or Ducks by packaging Ovechkin, Semin, and Green? Both teams have the talent to return should any of them be interested.

Stranger things have happened, but I’m pretty confident McPhee will not fire another coach, especially Dale Hunter before a few super stars currently wearing red, white, and blue, are wearing different sweaters elsewhere before the first of March.

 

 

With Rice As Main Course, Ravens Have Menu of Success For December Football

December 6, 2011 in Baltimore Ravens, Cam Cameron, John Harbaugh, NFL, NFL Football, Uncategorized

Ray Rice flexes his will

You can bet that if it’s the holiday season in the Charm City, than the Baltimore Ravens are playing smash mouth December football. NFL Football in December is a different beast than it is in September, October, and for most of November.

Thanksgiving is usually the cutoff when the contenders separate from the pretenders. Teams that succeed this time of the year in the NFL are teams that can, run the football, play great defense by stopping the run, and excel on special teams.

The weather is a huge factor in why many successful teams change game plans and philosophies, but in order to do so, they must also have the personnel. You can’t succeed in December and January without having top tier talent. Fortunately, for the Baltimore Ravens, they have that talent on both sides of the ball, and the coaching staff has finally begun to use it accordingly.

Like the previous three seasons, the Ravens have begun their march towards the NFL’s post season. Their 24-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday was a workman like performance. In the heavy rainy and wind, Baltimore continued their domination over Cleveland, winning their seventh straight game versus the Browns, and fifth straight in Cleveland.

Head Coach John Harbaugh, who seems to draw criticism during the early stages of each season, knows what it takes to win in December, and January. He knows that you have to win your division games, and is now 15-7 against divisional foes since taking over for Brian Billick in 2008, and you have to win on the road. Harbaugh has also done that, and with Sunday's victory, is now 16-14 (20-17 including playoffs) away from Baltimore during his tenure.

Sunday's win over Cleveland was the Ravens sixth straight over a divisional foe and their eighth divisional win in their last nine divisional games.

Much of the Ravens success as a franchise in December can be traced before the arrival of Harbaugh. Former Ravens head coach Brian Billick geared his whole season, starting in training camp, for play in December, and January. Billick kept his players fresh when he could, often times drawing criticism for soft training camps, which the Baltimore media dubbed, "Camp Billick".

Whatever Billick did it worked, and rubbed off on players like future hall of famer's Ray Lewis, and Ed Reed. Both are often overheard preaching the importance of winning this time of year, as the Ravens have been a franchise that thrives after Thanksgiving.

Since 1999, Baltimore is 36-20 during the toughest time of the season, and was 26-16 under Billick. Harbaugh has continued where Billick left off so to speak during the last six weeks of the season, and has guided the Ravens to an 11-4 mark under his leadership.

Like Billick, Harbaugh has relied on the Ravens rushing attack, and great defense during this time of year. Not many teams heat up like the Ravens when "December" football is needed, and the weather turns cold, calling for the ground and pound game.

During the Harbaugh era, and entering Sunday’s game, Baltimore has rushed for 152.6 yards per game in December/January, good for the NFL’s third best average over that span.

On Sunday in Cleveland, Rice rushed for a career high 204 yards, and one touchdown and back-up Ricky Williams chipped in with 76-yards and also added a touchdown. Only the New York Jets (153.3) and Carolina Panther (171.5) averaged more rushing yards per game during the Harbaugh era.

After Sunday’s team total of 290 yards, the Ravens bumped their average 161.8 YPG, and now only trail the Panthers. As I stated earlier, teams must also be able to stop the run, and play great defense this time of year. Nobody has done both as well as the Ravens in recent years. Since the 08' season, the Ravens have allowed just 83.2 rushing yards per game, the fewest in the NFL.

On Sunday, and once again without their leader in the middle, Ray Lewis, the Ravens defense dominated another offense. They held this year’s jinxed Madden cover boy, Peyton Hillis, to just 45 yards. This after Hillis used the Ravens defense as part of his climb towards notoriety last season, gaining 144-yrads on ray and company during a week three loss in Baltimore.

Since Lewis has gone down with a turf tow injury, the Ravens have held Cedric Benson, Frank Gore, and Peyton Hillis to an average of just 41.6 yards per game.

Head coaches have their holdups that tend to frustrate fans at times during a season, or for an entire season. Brian Billick’s willingness

Brian Billick and Kyle Boller

to stick with the much maligned Kyle Boller at quarterback was ultimately his undoing in Baltimore.

John Harbaugh is no different, and his failure to become more involved with the Ravens offensive game plan, and forcing Cam Cameron to rely on running back Ray Rice, instead  trying to turn quarterback Joe Flacco into an elite NFL passer, has also frustrated the fans in Baltimore at times.

Many believe that Cameron’s play calling during losses to the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars, and Seattle Seahawks is the only reason the Ravens aren’t a dominating 11-1, instead of a frustrating 9-3.

After attempting 52-passes just three weeks ago during a loss to the now 5-7 Seattle Seahawks, the third most in franchise history, the Ravens set a franchise record with 55-rushing attempts in Cleveland on Sunday.

During the Ravens magical Super Bowl season of 2000, the so called magic number was 10. Defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, Hall of Fame defensive back Rod Woodson, and the rest of Baltimore's dominating defense used to tell the Ravens less than potent offense, that all they needed to do was score 10-points, and they would do the rest, securing a victory.

That formula worked, and in what could another magical season, there appears to be another magic number. That number is 14, and it has everything to do with No.27.

When Ray Rice has less than 14 rushes, as he did in losses to the Titans (13), Jags (5) and Seahawks (8), he has no touchdowns, and averaged just 44.8 yards per game. The most important stat is, the Ravens are 1-3 this season when that happens.

When Rice has 14 or more rushes, he has nine touchdowns, averages 93.4 yards per game, and Baltimore is 8-0.

The trend of turning to Rice this time of year is not new this season. The Ravens, who were suffering from an offensive identity crisis throughout much of this season, did so for much of last season, until they turned to Rice in a mid-December win over Saints at home last year.

During the three games prior to beating the Saints last season, Rice averaged 15.6 rushing attempts per game, and 56 rushing yards. The Ravens went 2-1, and dropped behind the Steelers in the division. Over the next three games, and once the Ravens realized they were not any closer to the identity they were in search of, and turned to Rice, he averaged 107 yards per game, including 157 versus the Saints, while carrying the ball 25.3 times per game. The Ravens went 3-0, and locked up the top Wild Card in the AFC.

This season, defensive superstars Terrell Suggs, and Ray Lewis voiced their displeasure with Cameron's play calling, and Rice wasn’t quite as patient waiting for his offensive coordinator and head coach to once again turn to him. Although not disrespectful, Rice voiced his displeasure with his lack of work during those losses.

Thankfully, the Ravens committed to Rice a bit sooner than last season, which began following the loss to to Seattle. However, the noticeable change in philosophy was seen on Thanksgiving night versus the 49ers.

With 3:20 remaining in the game, and the Ravens holding on to a seven point lead, they had third and five from the San Francisco 20-yard line. Now I don’t have to remind Ravens fans what Cameron, Flacco and the Ravens offense did in almost an identical situation exactly one year ago versus the Steelers, but I will for the sake of my point.

The strip-sack-fumble

With a little under three minutes remaining, and on second and five, Flacco dropped back to throw and was sacked, and stripped of the ball by the Steelers Troy Polamalu.

The Steelers recovered, and eventually scored the touchdown that delivered the AFC North title, home field advantage, and another trip to the Super Bowl. Now call me foolish, but I believe all of that was possible because of that play.

Flash forward back to Thanksgiving night. Flacco takes the third down snap and hands off to Ray Rice, who was dropped for a one yard loss. It didn't matter, the Raves maintained possession, as Billy Cundiff drilled the 39-yard field goal extending the lead to 10-points. With the way the Ravens defense was playing, the game was all but over.

Sunday was the tenth time with Cam Cameron as the offensive coordinator that the Ravens have rushed for at least 190-yards or more, to no one’s surprise they are 9-0 when doing so. However, what makes this year’s struggles to commit to Rice hard to swallow is the fact that Baltimore is 25-2 when they rush for just 125 yards in a game, including 5-0 last season, and now 3-0 this season.

The Ravens have tortured the Browns rush defense over the years, as Rice became the second Ravens running back to have a career day vs. Cleveland. Who can forget the day Jamal Lewis temporarily broke the NFL single game rushing record when he torched the Browns for 295-yards back on September 13, 2003.

Flacco handing to Rice is the formula for success

Raynell Maurice Rice is the key to the Ravens offense, and has been for the past two seasons. That’s not a knock on Joe Flacco, or Anquan Boldin, but Rice has the numbers to support this claim. The fourth year back from Rutgers University has compiled 29 games with at least 100 total yards from scrimmage, 27 since becoming the Ravens full time starter. That is the most in the NFL dating back to the 2009 season.

If a good defense can take Rice away from the Ravens offense, the Ravens may be in trouble, but only the Ravens seem to be the ones taking Rice away. If Rice is stopped by a good defense in the playoffs, than you can only hope the Joe Flacco versus the Steelers shows up, instead of the Joe Flacco versus the Titans.

When you consider all factors involved, the Ravens should be sitting at home waiting for their playoff opponent once the post season begins this year, with a first round bye. There is no reason they shouldn’t win out especially when you consider their next three opponents, the Colts, Chargers, and Browns once again, have a combined record of 9-27. The Ravens may even break the rushing attempt record they just set this past Sunday, as none of the three teams rank higher than 26th against the run. The Colts and Browns are ranked 30th, and 31st respectively.

Yes, the Steelers have a soft schedule, and played a great December game themselves this past Sunday, when they blasted the Bengals 35-7 in Pittsburgh. Aside from the fact the Ravens are a better team this season, catching all of the breaks, the black and gold has to travel to San Francisco to play the 49ers, and in case you forgot, there is also a Harbaugh on that side-line as well.

The Steelers may have the No.1 ranked defense in the league in terms of yards allowed, but the Ravens are playing the best overall defense. It’s not even close when you consider all of the stats. The Ravens defense is No.1 in the NFL with 41 sacks, and 16 forced fumbles. They are No.2 with 10 recoveries, and No.3 in the NFL allowing 16 points per game.

The Ravens secondary, which has a great mix of youth and veteran leadership in Lardarius Webb, Carey Williams, Jimmy Smith, Chris Carr, Ed Reed, and Marcus Pollard, have 13 interceptions this season.

Compared to the Steele Curtain, that’s 14 more sacks, and 11 more turnovers. This on top of the fact that the Ravens are 10 turnovers better in terms of plus/minus. The Steelers are a minus-6, while the Ravens are ninth in the NFL with a plus-4.

The Ravens have some issues to iron out; they aren’t ready to bring the franchises second Lombardi trophy back to the big castle in Owings Mills just yet.

Ravens Vs. Steelers

Ultimately would it surprise anyone if the Ravens and Steelers met for a third time in one season, for the third time in the last four years? If things stay as they are, this one would be in Baltimore, and that is the difference this season.

Baltimore is 6-2 in December at home under Harbaugh. However, those two December losses at home were to Pittsburgh. This seems different this season, and it appears to be the year of the Ravens. Besides, the Ravens have a better formula to beat teams like the Packers and Saints than do any other team in the AFC, including the Steelers.

If Pittsburgh couldn’t beat the wild card Packers last year in the Super Bowl, how would they handle, with practically the same personnel in Pittsburgh, an undefeated and even better Aaron Rodgers this year? The Ravens are better equipped to beat them, and the Saints, if all of these teams make it that far.

Much like the Giants did to Tom Brady a few years back in the Super Bowl, Baltimore would rush Rodgers with pressure like he hasn’t seen this season. They say the best defense, is not to play any at all, as both the Saints and Packers possess middle of the road run defenses, which Rice and the Ravens could very easily exploit.

This would keep Rodgers and Drew Brees on the sidelines unable to make the big plays, while they watched the Ravens control the clock, and ultimately, the game. If the Ravens make it to the big game, and the 49ers are waiting for them, they already have the formula for beating the NFL's best rushing defense, having already done so on Thanksgiving.

Rushing for a respectable 92-yards, the Ravens stuck with Rice, and dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, tying a franchise record on defense with nine sacks. Now that is all very much easier said, than done, but of all the teams in the AFC, the Ravens stand the best chance to take down those teams.

They, meaning John Harbaugh, and Cam Cameron, seem to get it now, and as long as they stick with their main course of Rice left, Rice right, and Rice up the middle, the Ravens will finally host a playoff game for the first time since losing to the Colts in 2007, maybe even two of them.

The Ravens are coming together on offense at just the right time; in other words, Baltimore is starting to climb to a peak that they could reach the first Sunday in February. Ricky Williams and Vonta Leach along with Ray Rice make-up one of the best backfield's in the NFL.

For you Flacco fans, he will be needed to win a big game before the season is over, and he’s starting to play real well. Getting home field advantage is important, but has a bit more importance to the Ravens fourth year signal caller. Flacco is a top tier NFL quarterback at M&T Bank Stadium during his career.

Joe Cool owns 25 career wins at home, the most among NFL starting quarterback since 2008. Although he has struggled this season, with a 55.3 completion percentage, Flacco has been solid in recent weeks when it counts. Prior to Sunday’s game in horrible conditions, Flacco posted back-to-back QB rating s over 100, and completed 64 percent of his passes.

2000 Championship ring

Flacco was crisp and sharp, in wins over the Niners and Bengals. Even in Cleveland, where drops by his receivers, and bad weather plagued his numbers, he seemed to be able to throw the ball through a bread box with precision. Flacco is a big reason why the Ravens have won three games in 14 days, but the No.1 reason is Rice, and the defense.

If Cameron sticks with Rice as Baltimore’s main course on offense, and you get the feeling he’s going to, than the Ravens will serve up the best of ironies to the great football fans of Baltimore—A Chance to win a Super Bowl in the house an Irsay built.

 

Capitals Feeling Blue After Losing Hunters Debut; Breakdowns, Lack of Offense Issues For New Coach

December 1, 2011 in NHL, NHL game recap, Washington Capitals

Ovechkin has a question for new coach Dale Hunter

Despite losing 2-1 to the white hot St. Louis Blues last evening, the Washington Capitals played nothing like they did over this past weekend when they dropped two straight games, ultimately costing their head coach, Bruce Boudreau his job on Monday.

General Manager George McPhee replaced Boudreau with long time Caps great Dale Hunter, who unfortunately became just the second Caps coach to lose his debut out of the last five that were hired. The return of Hunter to Washington began as a feel good affair. How could seeing old' No.32 not bring up memories of his goal vs. the Flyers in overtime of the 1988 playoffs, or even his hit on the Islanders Pierre Turgeon during the 1993 playoffs. Knowing Hunters playing style is to know, that big time changes are in store for the Capitals, and while they didn’t play like they did this past weekend, they were not exactly the high flying, goal scoring, hardworking Capitals that many wanted to see.

Be patient, this is a process. Hunter does not come from within the system as Boudreau did, or Terry Murray did. He brings his own system. Hunters system will be void of individualism, superstardom, and laziness. The new Capitals will be known for taking the play to their opponents. There were moments last night when those three issues showed their ugly heads, and you can believe that while Hunter was in a jovial mood so to speak following the game, he definitely had a pad full of notes.

I’m sure written down somewhere was the icing play that John Carlson blew. Carlson had a 10 feet head start on the touch-up, and instead of hustling to finish the play, bringing the faceoff back into the offensive zone, Carlson pulled up on the play, and got beat to the puck.

Despite assisting on the Caps lone goal, and looking a bit quicker in his skates, I’m sure also written down is the fact that Alex Ovechkin squandered two first period chances and two third period chances because of the predictability in his game. Then there was the defense, and though they only allowed two goals last night, the game winner was a complete breakdown around the net that started with the failure to clear the zone, and man up. It ended with Tomas Vokoun way out of position, and numerous Caps defenders standing around.

The St. Louis Blues weren’t exactly in the holiday spirit of giving last evening, and have not been since their new head coach, Ken Hitchcock, took over on Nov-7.  Like many of the Washington teams Dale Hunter played on, the Blues forced Washington to fight for everything they got, and it wasn’t much in the end.

The Blues are smack dab in the middle of the proverbial new head coach bounce that usually occurs when old coaches are fired. Hopefully, the Caps will start their bounce on Thursday versus the Penguins, but right now it’s all about defense with St. Louis, and fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on what type of hockey you like, it will also be defense or bust for the Capitals real soon too.

If you know Hitchcock then you know it’s always about defense, and scoring on his teams have always come at a premium. Since taking over 23 days ago, Hitchcock and the Blues are 8-2-1, have jumped from 14th to near the top of the Western conference. They have the best defense in the NHL, and came into last night's game allowing a little over two goals per game.

Hitchcock even had the luxury of sitting the best goalie in the league, Brian Elliott, who's lost just once this year. In his place stood

Jaroslav Halak loves the big phone booth

Washington’s old playoff nemesis from the Montreal Canadiens, Jaroslav Halak.

Halak didn't have to work like he did two years ago in the playoffs, when the Capitals badly outshot the Habs, but still managed to lose the playoff series after leading 3-games-to-1. Last night Halak faced just 19 Washington shots, as the Blues played a perfect road game, and registered 30 of their own.

Washington shouldn't get to down on their selves, entering Tuesday night’s contest, the Blues had been the league’s stingiest team in terms of shots on goal allowed with an average of just 25.9 shots against per game. Attempted shots are becoming more and more of bigger stat in the NHL these days, and the Blues stifled the Capitals in that department as well.

Washington attempted just 30, as 19 were on net, six were blocked, and five missed the net completely. St. Louis plays Hitchcock’s smothering, trap-style to near perfection, as they outworked the Capitals in the corners, along the boards, and beat them to most loose pucks. St. Louis has now surrendered two or fewer goals in 10 of its last 11 games, while Washington has scored just one goal in five of their past eight games.

The Caps are now 5-10-1 since recording a franchise best 7-0 mark to start the season.

If you ask me, the Blues were the perfect opponent for Hunters first game because it's very likely Caps fans should see a similar style in the coming weeks and months. Hunter will demand his team work on every shift by battling for every loose puck. Hunter will ask his defense to simply limit scoring chances by taking playing tight defense. Offensive minded players will be expected to be extremely responsible in their own end, and the days of the two Alex's jumping out of the defensive zone early looking for a breakaway will be long gone.

It will take time

Hunter's system will get the goal scorers their fair share of chances, but they will come at the expense of having forced a turnover, and working the puck up the ice. The Caps teams that Hunter played on were not gifted offensively, so almost every point was a result of having forced a play after the other team made a mistake.

Make no mistake Caps fans, Washington's offense will be a former shell of itself in terms of how they score, but think about the Detroit Red Wings of the late 90's, and their smothering defense. The Wings that won back-to-back Stanley Cups bore no resemblance to high flying Edmonton Oilers of the mid 80's, but in 1997 they finished the season ranked second in goals against (197) and sixth in goals (253) for. The following season when they swept the Caps in four straight games to repeat, Dale Hunters last as a Capital, Detroit flipped the script, and ranked second in GF (250), and seventh in GA (196).

Washington has the talent to duplicate that style of play. Its Hunters job to find the middle of the Washington team that scored 318 goals two seasons ago, and allowed an all-time franchise low 2.29 goals against last season.

The Capitals did manage a 1-0 lead a little over 10 minutes into the contest. Alex Ovechkin, who seemed to have an extra bounce in his predictable step, carried the puck over the blue line and down the right side boards, drawing two Blues to him. The Great 8 then shocked the world, and instead of the curl and drag, followed by a missed shot, Ovie threw a nice pass to an open Nicklas Backstrom, who was between the hashmarks, and Washington’s leading scorer managed to beat Halak with a knuckle shot under the right pad.

Hunter was all smile after the game.......for now

The Blues needed just five minutes to tie the game, as Karl Alzner was beaten to a rebound off a shot that hit the crossbar. The original shot should have easily been gloved by Caps starter Tomas Vokoun (28 saves), but was picked up by Oshie and knocked into the net.

This was another one of those plays that you hope not see in a few weeks, as Caps defenders should be playing more up on their man under Hunter.

Brooks Laich explained after the game last night by telling reporters, “It’s going to take months to perfect,” Brooks Laich said. “In the D-zone we want to be a lot more aggressive. Traditionally you want to have a defenseman in front of the net but he’s preaching for us to get out. Maybe a little more man-to-man . . . tighter defensively where it’s not just zone and offensively we really want to try to funnel pucks down below the net, go low to high. It’s not stuff that’s ground breaking or brand new but little things to focus on to try to help us.”

The Blues took the lead 2-1 on another defensive breakdown in the second period. Vokoun failed to secure a shot by the Blues Matt D’Agostini, and when Dennis Wideman failed to tie up the stick of St. Louis center Patrik Berglund, he fed the puck behind the net to D’Agostini who completed the wrap around for the game winner.

Vokoun was so far out of position that D’Agostini could have crawled around the cage backwards to wrap the puck into the net. The net was so wide open, it appeared Vokoun had been pulled in favor of an extra attacker. To be fair to the Capitals, they have been through a lot over the past 48 hours, and although this is a self-inflicted wound that required the firing of their coach to help with the healing, it is still an open wound none the less.

Washington had their moments last night. They were stellar on the penalty kill, as they killed off all four St. Louis power plays, one a 5-on-3. All-in-all, Washington's penalty kill was the best part of their game last evening, as the Caps spent 5-minutes and 3-seconds down at least one man. They almost scored while down two men, and allowed no two on one’s, or any breakaways. That is significant in its self because both Dale Hunter and Tomas Vokoun mentioned that fact when talking to reporters following the game.

The Capitals are very good hockey team in search of a leader, and an identity. Their former leader finally spoke with some members of the media today. Boudreau is a class act, and decided that he would wait until after Hunter's debut to talk.

He told Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post that “I told George this on Monday: I tried every trick that I knew in 18 years and nothing was working.” Boudreau said. “I told him, ‘You’re doing what you have to do.’ I thought I was going to be here forever, but this was something I thought that had to be done. Am I disappointed? Absolutely.”

That is a very telling statement into the current state of the Capitals. Not only does Washington have to adjust to a new system, but they have to learn to follow once again, and trust a leader. It is obvious by Boudreua’s comments that somewhere this season, they quit on him. That is not a good thing under any circumstance, and may even temporarily hinder Hunters progress.

Watching the Caps right now, they seem like a defeated bunch, they are playing with the deer in the headlights look, at times. They are confused, and it would not have mattered if George McPhee hired Vince Lombardi, Toe Blake or Scotty Bowman in their primes. The Capitals, or any team for that matter, that has not had faith in a head coach, or leader, for an extended period, isn’t going to find that faith overnight.

Their new head coach has his team's respect, his NHL resume warrants that, and so far several Capitals have acknowledged that fact. However, trust is another issue, and if Hunter can gain their trust and get them to buy into his system, one that help him become the fastest head coach in OHL histoy to win 300, and 400 games, then come springtime, the Caps could be back doing where Hunter last left off in D.C, playing for a Stanley Cup.

Guess who is coming to town

NEXT GAME:

Thursday Vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Capitals are 11-0-2 versus the Penguins during the past three regular seasons, and have not lost in regulation time to Pittsburgh since March-9, 2008. For more stats about the game, and a preview of the Pens-Caps tilt,  be sure to look for my article previewing the game, and see what  Sid the Kid can look forward to in his first game vs Washington since the Winter Classic.