- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Four years of Bruce Boudreau and his successes and failures put to rest, there was Dale Hunter in his blue suit — his only suit — behind the bench at Verizon Center as coach of the Washington Capitals.

With just a couple of practices to install his way of playing hockey, Hunter’s era began Tuesday night against the St. Louis Blues. He called it a “clean slate,” and it’s exactly that for the former captain, the players and the entire organization.

“Whenever there’s a change, usually guys step to the challenge and have that jump and want to show the new coach what we can do,” defenseman John Erskine said.

Wednesday ushered in the first game of what right wing Troy Brouwer called the “honeymoon period” under a new coach. Several former players who have gone through coaching regime changes talked about the first couple of weeks and the instant energy that can come from them.

It’s possible the Capitals go on a significant run and erase memories of a 3-7-1 stretch. But the honeymoon period also is an opportunity for players to show Hunter what they have — and likely extra pressure to make a good first impression in a time of change.

“Everyone’s got something to prove right now because Dale’s only seen a couple games,” Brouwer said. “He doesn’t necessarily know the players for what type of players they are, so guys have to showcase a little bit and try and show him what they got so he can make his lineup and make his decisions.”

For the past few years, each player has had a defined role. Hunter cautioned he’s not making sweeping changes right away, but this won’t look much like Boudreau’s team by the time the transformation is complete.

“Every coach has different systems, and I changed my systems a bit from Bruce‘s,” Hunter said. “I changed some forecheck, neutral zone, D zone — basically the whole ice, I guess.”

Those major changes and the likelihood of some altering roles could have some players on edge and needing to show something special to Hunter in the first few days and weeks.

“He said he watched so many games — I think he knows a lot about everybody. You always want to make a good impression, you always want to play at your best,” center Marcus Johansson said. “It’s not going to be different from any other game — you always want to go out and do everything you can to show that you want to play and show that you can play. It’s something you want to do every night.”

Hunter uses the word “work” so often that players understand what they will need to do, regardless of the system and changing styles. Defenseman Karl Alzner said that “everybody wants to show him that we’re working hard.”

Some players questioned the team’s work ethic in recent weeks, something that shouldn’t be a problem — at least at first — under Hunter.

“I’m sure Mr. Hunter’s here and he’s excited — probably happy as a pig to be here and coach this team,” forward Brooks Laich said. “The enthusiasm is still there. I’m sure we’re going to tweak a few things and have a bit of a new attitude or system or whatever. But the enthusiasm’s still there.”