TAMPA, Fla. — There was a reason why when Adam Oates learned the NHL lockout was ending, he and his coaching staff sprinted to the Washington Capitals' offices to get ready for the season. Time was short and the to-do list was long.
That was on full display in the Capitals' 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday to open the season. One team looked familiar and at ease with what it had to do, while the other was trying to put into practice what it soaked in during a much-abbreviated training camp.
"Anytime you learn a new system, it's hard for everyone to get comfortable with it. You're kind of thinking a little bit first before you're just kind of doing," defenseman Tom Poti said. "Not making any excuses. We lost tonight and we made more mistakes than they did, and that was the difference."
It wasn't like the Caps were completely lost with no direction, but after playing most of last season under the auspices of Dale Hunter's defensive, tight-checking hockey, it's hard to flip the switch.
Having 252 days between games as a team doesn't help, either.
"Obviously it's an adjustment period, but I really think today was just nerves of guys just trying to shake it off," said right wing Joel Ward, who scored two goals. "It's been a long time."
It hasn't been a long time since the Caps were introduced to Oates' philosophies and tendencies. Players were able to talk to their new coach over the summer before the lockout began, but last week was a cram session just to get up to speed.
Because of the shortened time frame between the end of the lockout and Saturday's start to the 48-game regular season, right wing Troy Brouwer said this was like a midseason coaching change. Last year, it took the Caps a couple of months to shift from Bruce Boudreau's system to Hunter's.
There isn't the luxury of that kind of time now.
"It's tough. It's going to take the guys awhile," Oates said. "And we've talked about that, and hopefully we can win enough games until it becomes automatic."
As one of four NHL teams with new coaches, the Caps knew they were at something of a disadvantage. Oates noted conditioning as one of the reasons for Saturday night's loss, which devolved from a close game into a rout in the third period. Under third-year coach Guy Boucher, the Lightning were able to emphasize conditioning during camp.
"The game shape that we talked about, that we focused so much on during the week, really made a difference," Boucher said. "You could feel at the end of the second period. You could see it in the other team, you could see it in our players."
Oates saw some of his players being "a little bit out of shape," and penalties piled up as a result. But it's not like the rookie head coach can bag skate his players this week to ramp up their fitness level.
Not while there's still so much to install.
"That's a tough call, it really is. And I think that's the same for every team," Oates said. "Get a couple games under your belt will certainly help. But we play four games in a week, so when do you try and catch up? It's tough."
A few players didn't think systems knowledge or lack thereof was the problem at Tampa Bay.
"I think that there was a couple times in the defensive zone the puck was bouncing around and guys were scrambling, when [if] we just stick to our positions and stay calm and composed, things will work themselves out," defenseman Mike Green said. "As far as the systems standpoint, we played it as well as we could tonight, but we got to move forward a little bit more with that."
Captain Alex Ovechkin, who was held without a point and without a shot for the final two periods in the first game of his move to right wing, said the debut effort under Oates "was not [a] bad game."
But there's still plenty of work to do. Oates praised his young defensive pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, but the defensive zone miscues by the group were alarming. Missed assignments at five-on-five and on the penalty kill led to goals that were hard to pin on goaltender Braden Holtby.
Perhaps one of the problems the Caps had was a failure to communicate.
"You want to talk more, especially [when] we're just learning the systems here: different players, different lines," center Mike Ribeiro said. "I think that's one of the details of the game that a lot of teams don't do. A lot of guys don't do it, and we're going to fix that."
Fixing problems on the fly is even more of a challenge than normal given the compressed schedule. The Caps face the Winnipeg Jets for their home opener at Verizon Center on Tuesday, host the Montreal Canadiens on Thursday and visit the New Jersey Devils on Friday.
But first, they'll analyze the loss to the Lightning, the first look at this team in a competitive situation.
"We'll take some good things, we'll watch the video, take the positive out of it. There's some good, there's some bad," Ribeiro said. "It's good to have that first game and see what we did right and wrong and go back and fix that."
Oates is keen on using video to point out problems. So if nothing else, Saturday night provided visual evidence of what needs to be fixed
"Definitely we had some breakdowns out there, and they were pretty apparent. I think the only way we can go is up," Poti said. "I think learning a new system is hard, but at the same time, we've got to get through it and battle through it."
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