- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dale Hunter’s regime is just more than one month old, with Wednesday marking the anniversary of his taking over as Washington Capitals coach.

It was the shake-up that general manager George McPhee thought was needed, firing Bruce Boudreau in the hopes that a new voice would turn around the season.

Progress has come in fits and spurts, and the Capitals remain mired in third place in the Southeast Division. If the playoffs started today, Washington would not qualify.

“That we’re not putting wins together is a concern. Mistakes are going to happen — but as long as they’re mistakes of effort, if a guy is trying his hardest and a mistake happens, we’ll live with it,” forward Brooks Laich said. “I think some guys are putting it in every night, but I think we could be better. Even guys that are working, I still think can take it to another level. We all have to be better.”

Problems range from goaltending to lack of offense, skating five-on-five and on the power play. Consistency, including work ethic, was cited by a few players.

“You see areas where you’ve got to improve. We’re not winning consistently,” Hunter said. “Consistency is one of those themes that we’ve got to work on — our first periods, turnovers, puck decisions have got to be better.”

Jeff Halpern pointed to struggles forechecking, defending opponents and getting out of the Caps’ zone to generate offense.

“It’s not even an effort of being lazy; it’s a laziness of not committing to that game plan and what’s asked of us,” the veteran forward said. “I think everyone in the room knows what’s expected and knows where their spot should be on the ice.”

Analysts and ex-players had little doubt that Hunter would be able to ride a surge of momentum just from being a new coach. The Caps went 5-6-1 in the first 12 games, going into Wednesday night’s matchup against the New York Rangers. The St. Louis Blues, by comparison went 8-1-3 in their first 12 under new coach Ken Hitchcock.

“It’s a little frustrating, especially when you know what you can do out there,” alternate captain Nicklas Backstrom said. “If you’re going to win hockey games, you’ve got to put everything together.”

Putting it all together likely means team-wide commitment to what Hunter has referred to as playing “the right way.” Another term is “buying in,” which can be a hard sell when winning isn’t the backdrop.

“Not everybody’s reading into the system — like chipping the puck in when we have to, getting the puck deep,” defenseman John Erskine said. “I think when everybody buys into that and get our forecheck going, I think that’s when we’ll start being a better team.”

Getting on that track includes a self-policing system that includes teammates and coaches speaking up when necessary.

“You can point out, kick over garbage cans and rant and rave all the time, but I think it’s a collective effort between the players and the coaches, whether it’s their first year in the league or whether they’ve been around a lot to point something out if someone’s not doing something,” Halpern said. “It’s not meant to be done in a negative way; I think anything that’s said and done is for everyone’s best interest. It’s an ongoing theme that we try to do.”

Players were quick to stress that it’s up them to produce, not Hunter and the coaching staff. Laich and Backstrom said it’s about individual responsibility.

And following through.

“Words are cheap sometimes. Well-done is better than well-said,” Laich said. “You can talk all you want, but the game’s played on the ice.”

Note — Forward Jay Beagle returned to the lineup Wednesday night after missing 31 games with a concussion.

• Stephen Whyno can be reached at swhyno@washingtontimes.com.

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