Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A NO-point night -- Game 23: Blues 2 - Caps 1

So much for the storybook ending, at least for the first game.

The Caps took the ice expecting to play a hockey game and ended up wondering who filled the Verizon Center rink with quicksand as they dropped a 2-1 decision to the St. Louis Blues in Dale Hunter’s debut as head coach for the Caps.

It was a pretty simple case of a team on top of its game playing a pretty simple style – forecheck the crap out of the opponent, win the battles along the wall, and don’t give a puck carrier time to look around for an outlet. As a result, the Caps managed a single goal on just 19 shots and spent an awful lot of time dumping the puck out of their own end or into the Blues’ end, and having the Blues come out with the puck and momentum at either end.

Nicklas Backstrom got that lone goal for the Caps on a feed from Alex Ovechkin. The play started with Backstrom taking a hit to make a play, nudging the puck forward from inside the Caps’ blue line to Ovechkin as he was being stapled to the wall by David Backes. Ovechkin took the puck and crossed diagonally through the neutral zone from the left to the right wing. As he eased down the right side, Troy Brouwer crossed in front of the trailing Backstrom, who beat Backes down the ice. Brouwer’s cross caused a moment’s indecision between the two Blues defensemen, both sliding to Brouwer. It left Backstrom open as the trailer, and the pass from Ovechkin was taken by Backstrom and snapped it into the net. “Snapped” might not be the right verb there; the puck didn’t come cleanly off Backstrom’s stick, and it appeared to fool goalie Jaroslav Halak.

The Caps lead at 10:15 of the first period was short-lived. St. Louis would get the first of two second-effort goals at 15:48 when Alex Steen rang the puck off the crossbar. The puck deflected down into the crease, and T.J. Oshie pounced on it to bang home the rebound before goalie Tomas Vokoun could recover.

The Blues got the game-winner in the ninth minute of the second period when Matt D’Agostini followed up his own shot, taking a rebound offered up by Vokoun around the back of the net, tucking in it inside the post to Vokoun’s right.

It made for a quick, tidy, and ultimately unfulfilling game for Caps fans hoping for some Hunter magic in his first game behind the bench.

Other stuff…

-- It really was a glass-half-empty/glass-half-full sort of game. Yes, the Caps had a devil of a time trying to solve the St. Louis forecheck, but on the other hand they were patient at the other end, not trying to force plays by trying to skate through Blues defenders standing up at their blue line. Dump and chase isn’t exciting, and it isn’t a style this team has found natural for most of the last few years, but they did stick with it.

-- That dump and chase style was resulting in a lot of frustration early as the Caps couldn’t often manage to finish the “chase” part of that play and gain possession of the puck. But they were somewhat more successful as the game wore on. Call it a work in progress. No, not even that. Call it something to work on (Hunter alluded to this after the game when he specifically cited the forecheck as something that needs work).

-- Still…St. Louis had 30 shots on goal; the Caps had 30 shot attempts. And depending on where you sit, having fewer shots on goal (19) than you had blocked shots (the Caps blocked 20 Blues shots) is either anemic offense or a nice effort by the defense.

-- Roman Hamrlik had six of those 20 blocked shots. And he was not on the ice for either St. Louis goal. Baby steps.

-- Alexander Semin continues to confound. He did have two of the Caps’ eight shots in the third period, but they were his only two shots. And there is the matter of ice time – 14:37. That’s the fourth time in his last nine games he logged fewer than 15 minutes after not getting less than 15:22 in any of his first 13 games. Part of it is skating with Cody Eakin and Marcus Johansson, each still at an age where minutes might be managed. But it means that the Jason Chimera-Brooks Laich-Joel Ward trio is the de facto second line if you measure such things by ice time.

-- Every Blues player had a hit, save one – Jason Arnott. We think Keith Tkachuk and Al MacInnis had a couple.

-- Only nine of 43 faceoffs were taken in the Caps’ offensive zone. The hallmark of a Ken Hitchcock-coached team is denying the other team any offensive opportunities. This is one way of doing that. Don’t take whistles in your own end.

-- The crowd was announced as another sellout – 18,506. But it sounded more like 8,506. We would have expected a little more energy in the building.

-- Alex Ovechkin didn’t have a breakout game, but frankly, who would have expected it in this game? He had one shot on goal, and St. Louis is a disciplined enough team to keep even a player of Ovechkin’s talents away from places he wants to go. Still, with the assist on the Backstrom goal he has points in four of his last five games.

-- With a bit more luck (and a Caps defender shutting off a second chance), Tomas Vokoun might have had a shutout. As it was, he allowed only two goals in a full 60 minutes of work for the first time since he dropped a 2-1 decision to Nashville on November 15th (coincidentally, on both nights he stopped 28 of 30 shots). Over five appearances (one a 41 second spin around the crease) he had allowed 15 goals on 94 shots (.840 save percentage).

In the end, the loss was disappointing but not unexpected. The Caps were in turmoil before tonight (otherwise, why dismiss the coach?), and the team they faced tonight was 8-2-2 for November. Moreover, the Blues had allowed more than two goals once in 12 games in November coming into this game, had three shutouts, and had three other games in which they allowed only one goal. This is about as well as they are going to play.

The Caps though, should improve. They are not as bad as the 5-10-1 record they are sitting on after their 7-0-0 start. Vokoun hasn’t suddenly forgot how to tend goal. The defense, even without Mike Green, will find a way to settle out the pairings, even if they become only “competent” in some respects. If Ovechkin picks up his pace just a little bit, he would be on a 35-goal pace and not the 29-goal pace he is on. Marcus Johansson will only get better. Even Cody Eakin is getting valuable experience.

Put it all together, and the fact that tonight didn’t have a storybook ending is only mildly disappointing. You want that storybook ending for, well…the end of the story, not its first chapter. And that is what this team needs to be building for, one step at a time.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 23: Blues at Capitals, November 29th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Technically, tonight’s game between the Washington Capitals and the St. Louis Blues is the 23rd game on the schedule for the Caps. But it is Game 1 in the NHL coaching career of Dale Hunter. For the Caps, Hunter is the 15th coach in team history, and it the experience of the other 14 is any indication, his first game will be memorable. That is not necessarily a good thing. For example…

-- Jimmy Anderson was the first coach in Caps history. He lost his first game, a 6-3 loss at the New York Rangers. Anderson would go 1-2-1 in his first four games, not a terrible start for a brand-spanking new expansion team. But then he would lose ten in a row, go 0-13-1 over 14 games, and eventually be relieved of his duties on February 9, 1975 after compiling a record of 4-45-5.

-- His successor was Red Sullivan, who won his first game behind the Caps bench – a 7-4 win at home against the Rangers. He was 2-2-0 after his first four games, but then went 0-14-0 in his next 14 games and was dismissed on March 22nd.

-- The next two Caps coaches – Milt Schmidt and Tom McVie – lost their respective first games on their way to a combined 54-156-38 record. That made the debut of Danny Belisle all the more promising when the Caps won on opening night of the 1978-1979 season (their third straight opening night win – go figure). And he was undefeated after two games (1-0-1). But an 0-5-1 skid put an end to that. Belisle lasted into the next season, but was relieved of his duties on November 5, 1979 (November, as you no doubt have figured out, is a month in which Caps coaches might want to disconnect their phones).

-- Enter Gary Green. At the age of 26, he was the youngest head coach in the history of the league. It did not keep him from being a loser in his first game with the Caps, making Caps coaches 2-4-0 in their first games. Green did not make it to age 30 as Caps head coach, asked to turn in his whistle on November 5, 1981 (what is it with November?).

-- Interlude…Roger Crozier coached one game behind the Caps bench. He lost.

-- Then came Bryan Murray, who stepped behind the Caps bench on November 11, 1981. He lost his first game, too. But he would win 343 times, making him the winningest coach in Caps history before he would turn over the keys to his brother Terry on January 15, 1990.

-- Terry Murray made what is perhaps the most emphatic entrance as a new coach with this team. The Caps entered that game on an eight-game losing streak and had a 18-24-4 record. The Caps took the ice on January 16th and pasted the New Jersey Devils, 9-6. The goals came from a who’s who of ex-Caps – two from Michal Pivonka, two from Geoff Courtnall, one from Dino Ciccarelli, another from Kevin Hatcher. Bob Rouse, John Tucker, and Stephen Leach rounded out the scoring to give Murray only the third first-game win in Caps coaching history. But after four seasons in which he posted better than .500 records, his team stumbled to a 20-23-4 start in 1993-1994, and he was dismissed on January 27, 1994.

-- Jim Schoenfeld was next up. His first game was memorable in that he returned to where he spent the bulk of his career – Buffalo. Not that he would want to remember this visit. The Caps were plastered by the Sabres, 7-2. Seven different Sabres had goals at the expense of Caps goalie Rick Tabaracci, and Schoenfeld established himself firmly in the pantheon of Caps coaches who had difficulties in their first game. Schoenfeld would coach in two abbreviated seasons, finishing up the 1993-1994 season (19-12-6) and then coaching in the shortened 1994-1995 season (22-18-8). In his first “full” season he was 39-32-11, but when he finished the 1996-1997 season 33-40-9, he was relieved in favor of Ron Wilson.

-- Ron Wilson won his first game as Caps head coach, a 4-1 win in Toronto on October 1, 1997. Then he won his next game…and his next…and his next. Wilson’s Caps started the 1997-1998 season with a 7-1-0 mark and finished it as a Stanley Cup finalist, the only time the Caps would reach the final in their history. It would arguably be the high point of his tenure. In fact, it might have provided some good will for the following season when the Caps would go 31-45-6 and miss the playoffs entirely (losing more than 500 man-game to injury probably had something to do with it, too). Wilson rebounded with a 102-point season in 1999-2000, but after dropping to 96 points the following year and 85 the next (that last year being the first one for Jaromir Jagr in Washington), Wilson was excused.

-- Next up was Bruce Cassidy. At the age of 37, the Caps were taking something of a chance. First time NHL coach, not much older than many of his players. And there was that whole “Jagr” thing to navigate. Cassidy won his first game, a 5-4 win over Nashville, and won his first three games. But the Caps had trouble all year getting any sort of traction. They had only one winning streak of as many as four games and finished 39-29-8-6. A collapse in the first round of the playoffs – losing the last four games after winning the first two against Tampa Bay – left a bitter taste, and when Cassidy opened the 2003-2004 season with an 8-18-1-1 record, he was asked to leave in favor of Glen Hanlon.

-- Glen Hanlon was promoted from within, elevated from the head coaching job with the Portland Pirates. He won his first game, a 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins on December 11, 2003 (parenthetically, Boston's Mike Knuble scored the first goal in that game before the Caps jumped on the Bruins for three goals in less than three minutes in the first period). However, his 15-28-9-2 record over the rest of the 2003-2004 season was not enough to lift the Caps to the playoffs. But this is when the Caps started undertaking their rebuild in earnest, and Hanlon’s ability to get the most out of his players merited his return. He would never compile a season record of .500, nor would his teams ever make the playoffs. When it became evident that the young talent on hand was not a good fit with his schemes, and when the Caps dropped five in a row – the last an ugly 5-1 loss to Atlanta at home – Hanlon was dismissed.

-- Bruce Boudreau took over on November 22, 2007 – Thanksgiving Day in the States. He stepped behind the Caps bench for the first time the following day in a difficult setting – Philadelphia. The Caps sped out to a 3-0 lead barely 34 minutes into the game. But the Flyers came back to tie it with less than five minutes left in regulation. Nicklas Backstrom made things alright, though, taking a feed from Alex Ovechkin and ending things 1:55 into overtime to give Boudreau a win in his first game – the fourth straight first game win for Caps coaches. Boudreau would become the second-winningest coach in Caps history in his tenure with the Caps, the fastest to 200 wins in modern NHL history. But the great promise of his regular season teams did not carry over into the playoffs, and when the Caps fell flat with a 5-9-1 record after starting this season 7-0-0, it was time for another change.

And that brings us to Dale Hunter. Although Hunter has more than 450 wins in Canadian junior hockey, he has no experience behind and NHL bench. That combination makes him an intriguing figure. Add in the history he has with this franchise – 12 seasons as a player and five as captain – and Hunter might be the most interesting of the 15 men to stand behind the Caps bench. Certainly, Caps fans feel a keen sense of anticipation of what Hunter brings to this team as a coach and whether the character he displayed as a player can be conveyed to this team of what to date have been underachievers. It will not be dull.

Caps 4 – Blues 2

(click pic for larger image)