- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NHL players past and present who have been through coach firings explained that an initial spark is usually automatic.

John Erskine expected he and his Washington Capitals teammates to have a little “jump” to their first game under new bench boss Dale Hunter. Marcus Johansson said every night players want to make a good impression.

Tuesday night featured some jump, but not enough offense or forecheck, as the Caps lost Hunter’s coaching debut 2-1 to the St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center.

“I thought the guys worked hard tonight. It was a tight game the whole game,” Hunter said. “They’ve been playing well, and they’re good defensively. We had a couple breakdowns, and it went in the net. We had our chances, especially the third period there we could’ve tied it up.”

Hunter cautioned that he wouldn’t be implementing big changes right away, but noted that he would be switching things up in all facets of the game. Tuesday’s defeat showed some of those changes, like a neutral zone trapping defense and a different-looking power play.

But it was evident that St. Louis was 11 games into life under shiny new coach Ken Hitchcock and that the Caps haven’t shaken out of their losing ways yet in their first game with Hunter. They’re now 3-8-1 in their past 12 games, while the Blues improved to 8-1-2 with Hitchcock at the helm.

“I think it was a little confusing in the beginning there — we were pumped up and we really wanted to play a good game,” Nicklas Backstrom said. “At the same time, we had some adjustments in our system and stuff like that. We were a little confusing there in the first 10 minutes, I think. After that, we worked ourself into the game, I think, and was getting better and better.”

The energy and jump the Caps expected out of themselves with a need to impress Hunter was there at first, and the coach complimented his team’s work ethic. But they didn’t do enough to crack the Blues and old nemesis Jaroslav Halak.

“By watching them live now, we’ve got some stuff to work on,” Hunter said. “The forecheck’s going to be better to get on top of their D, and our D zone coverage has got to be better.”

Halak wasn’t the reason the Caps lost the first game of the Hunter era, like he dominated the 2010 first-round playoff series while with Montreal, but he made the saves he needed to make. The Caps’ offense did not put a whole lot of pressure on him, scoring fewer than two goals for the fifth time in eight games.

The good vibrations of Hunter’s return were present before the game and during the early stages, as multiple video montages saluted the ex-captain-turned-coach with messages like “History Welcomes You Back … Coach” and “November 29, 2011 … Back where he belongs.” Backstrom’s goal on a pretty feed from Alex Ovechkin midway through the first period kept the mood going, but the Blues tied it late in the period and took the lead for good in the second.

From there, St. Louis played a perfect Hitchcock-esque game, limiting the Caps chances and preventing a storybook ending to Hunter’s first game in his new role.

“You want to get a win for him the first game. I think we’re all sorting through some things, too, on the ice. That may cause you to be a little bit hesitant in your step,” veteran right wing Mike Knuble said. “Overall I think we competed pretty hard. For us the rest of the year, it’s going to be such a fine line between winning or losing. And it just comes down to one little play here and there. That’s going to be the difference.”

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