Running on empty

Running on empty
December 2, 2011, 2:28 am
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Winning hockey games is only half of the challenge facing Capitals coach Dale Hunter.

Keeping his team on board while losing 2-1 games might be just as critical, if not more.

Weve got to adjust quickly or else were going to find ourselves packing an early golf bag in the spring, Jason Chimera said Thursday night after scoring the only goal in a 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at a sold out Verizon Center.

Asked if there was enough progress being made, Chimera was direct with his reply.

I dont know, we lost the game, he said. No.

The loss was the Capitals fourth straight and second in a row under Hunter, who replaced Bruce Boudreau as Capitals coach on Monday. They are now 2-8-1 in their last 11 games and 5-11-1 since starting the season with seven straight wins.

By the time they play again on Saturday night against the Senators the Caps could slip to 13th in the Eastern Conference standings.

In consecutive losses to the Blues and Penguins the Capitals have been outscored 4-2 and outshot 65-36. Still, Hunter is preaching to stay the course.

The players competed and we had some chances, Hunter said. Theyre a good team over there but it was a 1-1 game and they got a chance and they buried it. Thats the way the game goes. We had a few chances around the net and were getting better at it. It just takes time.

It may also take a few timely saves.

With 2:36 gone in the third period Chris Kunitz snapped a 1-1 tie with a rising snap shot that wormed its way through the left armpit of Capitals goaltender Tomas Vokoun.

It kind of went underneath my arm and trickled in, Vokoun said. Hes in scoring range, right in between the circles. Other people are paid to play, too, and sometimes theyre going to make good plays."

"It's tough to win with one goal."

On his goal, Kunitz raced across the blue line and when Caps defenseman John Erskine fell to the ice while backpedaling Kunitz snapped a shot that beat Vokoun for his ninth of the season.

I hit something or I tripped over my own feet, Erskine said. That cant be happening.

The energy that was lacking in Tuesday nights loss was in abundance against the Penguins but the Caps looked out of gas by the third period when they managed just two shots.

Erskine, who was out of the lineup with a left shoulder injury when Arron Asham knocked out Jay Beagle when the teams last met on Oct. 13, set the tone when he challenged Asham 5:27 into the game.

Asham had just set up Craig Adams second goal of the season by walking through Jeff Schulz at the side of the net. Six seconds later he was chucking knuckles with Erskine who took a punch square to the face before finishing with a flurry.

I saw it happen, Erskine said of Ashams knockdown, but that didnt really have much to do with it. We went down 1-0 and I wanted to get the crowd back into it.

Ironically, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby made little impact on the game.

Hunter and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma did their best to match lines against Crosby and Ovechkin, respectively.

Whenever the line of Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis hopped over the boards, Hunter would counter with the meat and potatoes line of Brooks Laich, Joel Ward and Chimera, along with defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner.

And whenever the line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer hit the ice, Bylsma would counter with Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, along with defensemen Brooks Orpik and Deryk Engelland.

The line match-ups worked to perfection for both coaches. Crosby had just three shots and was a minus-1 in 21 shifts totaling 20:21. Ovechkin had one shot and was even in 21 shifts totaling 19:22.

The Capitals only goal came from a familiar stick. Eighty seconds into the second period Jason Chimera came out from the corner, used Joel Ward as a decoy, and backhanded a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for his 10th goal of the season.

Chimeras goal matched his season total from last season and drew him within seven goals of his career high.

LOOSE PUCKS

Hunter went with these power play units Thursday night: First unit: Backstrom, Brooks Laich, Alex Semin, Dennis Wideman and Dmitry Orlov. Second unit: Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer, Wideman, John Carlson. On the penalty kill he used Jeff Halpern, Laich, Backstrom, Brouwer, Alzner, Carlson, Schultz and Wideman.

Caps RW Jay Beagle (concussion) is feeling better but has still not been cleared to skate. Beagle experienced dizziness when he tried skating two weeks ago and is now limiting himself to work in the weight room. Meanwhile, D Mike Green appears to be nearing a return to practice after missing the past 10 games. The Caps are hoping Green can join them on their road trip next week, when they visit the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators.