When the Capitals chose Dale Hunter to take over as head coach, the idea was to overhaul their system, to focus more on defense and let the scoring chances come with time. But unfortunately for them, the NHL regular season schedule doesnt just stop to allow new coaches and their players to adjust. There is no honeymoon, no grace period, and of course no opponents ready to let up on a team in such a state.
Perhaps making matters even more frustrating for Washington was a looming stretch featuring rival Pittsburgh just two games into Hunters tenure. And in a game rife with emotions and history, the Caps had to play up to the Penguins level, all the while learning their new system and keeping interests of the big picture in mind.
There are lots of emotions involved and stuff like that, it is like that when you play against Pittsburgh. Everyone wants a win, Nicklas Backstrom said.
There was progress, but if we want to get better we have to keep working at it.
In their 2-1 loss to the Penguins on Thursday night, signs of progress and potential in the new system were certainly on display. The Capitals made players not named Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin beat them as the Pens two goals were scored by Craig Adams and Chris Kunitz.
Crosby was kept pointless for just the second time since returning this season from a concussion, this after entering the game averaging 2.2 points per contest. His other game without a point was against the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 23, a team coached by fellow midseason hire Ken Hitchcock. Many have compared Hunters system makeover to that of Hitchcock, who has turned the Blues around dramatically since he was hired on Nov. 6.
If Hitchcock can do it with a less-talented St. Louis squad, then the same is expected of Hunter and the Capitals. It may be an extreme example, as Hitchcock and the Blues finished November going 8-1-2, but the Caps know they better change or their results at the end of the season will stay the same.
Were not there right now. Were not in the playoffs, but there is still no time to adjust, Jason Chimera said.
You have to adjust quickly or you will find yourself packing an early golf bag in the spring.
Chimera was one of several Capitals players to downplay learning a new system and trying it out on Pittsburgh as a factor altogether.
You cant think too much. Were good enough here, he said. You play every system from juniors up, we know the system we just have to play it. Its not the system you just have to find ways to win games.
Youre in the heat of the moment and in the battle, Joel Ward said. It is a rivalry but its also a game at the same time and you have to stay focused on the task at hand and thats playing against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While the Capitals have kept their opponents to just two goals per game so far, the obvious issue at hand is scoring. They have scored only one goal in each game and that pace will rarely equate to wins. While it is a significant problem, both the captain and the coach are confident it can be solved.
It is a new system and it is a new step for us, Alex Ovechkin said. It is a period of time and those goals will come, they will happen.
They are learning a new system but we have to be a little more quicker in our own end. Were spending too much time and it wears down our offense, Hunter said.
Whatever the specific issue is, the Capitals will have to get it corrected through another tough stretch of their schedule. After their next game against the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, Washington plays six of their next nine on the road. They will travel as far south as Florida and as far north as Winnipeg, all in a three week span.