There were moments in this evenings game when you could tell the Caps were a tad nervous working through their first night with Dale Hunter as their head coach. There were times during the day when you could tell that Dale was dealing with his own butterflies (probably as big as bats!) adjusting to being a big league coach. Unfortunately by the end of the contest nervous energy wasnt enough, and the Blues were successful in exerting their will just enough to eke out a 2-1 win.
St. Louis has been playing extremely well lately, with stifling defensive play that is a hallmark of a Ken Hitchcock-coached team. Since Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne three and half weeks ago, teams can barely score against the Blues, much less beat them.
Washington would grab the lead on a strong rush up ice by Alex Ovechkin. The Great 8 has been the subject of much criticism in the wake of the departure of Bruce Boudreau. He worked hard tonight, but there were a couple of instances where he appeared clumsy with his puck-handling and showed visible frustration as a result.
Ovechkin was smooth as silk on the opening goal, weaving through defenders and spotting Nicklas Backstrom joining the rush late. Backstrom managed to get off a one-time shot that found its way through Jaroslav Halak (the former Canadien goalie and scourge of the 2010 playoffs). Backstrom admitted he was a bit lucky on that one, but it was the opening tally for a Caps team hungry for goals.
The Blues would get that one back about five minutes later. Alexander Steen let-fly with a rising slapshot that flew over the glove of Tomas Vokoun and clanked off the crossbar. Most folks thought that initial shot went in, but it danced off the bar close by the net where T.J. Oshie made sure to tap it home on the backhand.
The Caps did not have a chance to generate much in the offensive zone because the Blues did a fine job of keeping them hemmed in the D-zone, with a persistent fore-check and with solid puck movement. There were a couple of times when they reminded me of their Central Division neighbors, the Red Wings, one-touching three or four passes around the perimeter in the blink of an eye.
The Blues would score the lead goal in the second period, and it would turn out to be the last red light that we would see inside of Verizon Center. Racing down the right wing, Matt DAgostini unloaded a slapshot that jammed off the catching-glove forearm of Vokoun. Had he caught the puck cleanly, the rest of the play would not have happened. Once the puck bounced off Vokoun, it caromed off other players and behind the goal where DAgostini was able to swoop in and stuff it on a wraparound into the empty net.
The Capitals finished with 19 shots on goal, two more than their season-low against the Devils. They only had one power-play opportunity and that did not come until the last 20 seconds of regulation.
On the positive side, the effort that was sorely lacking in Buffalo Saturday was much more present tonight. Hunter will need a few days, and meetings, and tons of video review to get the adjustments he is making to become second-nature to his club. They were sound defensively, there werent any alarming breakaways or odd-man rushes yielded to the Blues.
In recent years of regular season play the Pittsburgh Penguins have brought the best out of the Capitals. That black-n-gold team hits DC Thursday for what should be a very interesting night.
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