WASHINGTON -- When Ken Hitchcock met with a few reporters about an hour before his team's game Tuesday against the Washington Capitals, he gushed about his team's "response" to his coaching methods – reflected in the Blues' 8-1-2 record since he took over.
Hitchcock's team fell behind early at Verizon Center, but it was a response that kept the St. Louis Blues rolling and spoiled the NHL coaching debut for Washington Capitals coach Dale Hunter. T.J. Oshie and Matt D'Agostini scored goals, and the Blues suffocated the Capitals en route to a 2-1 victory at Verizon Center.
"We played a heck of a hockey game," Hitchcock said. "We created a lot of scoring chances. We didn't give up anything in two periods. We created a lot for ourselves. We're starting to dial into playing the game the way we need to play to win hockey games. It doesn't matter who's in or who's out – when you play this well, it's a good feeling."
Jaroslav Halak made 18 saves for the Blues, who have won eight of 11 since Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne behind the bench, and St. Louis surged to within one point of tying the Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild for the most points in the Western Conference.
The Blues outshot the Capitals 30-19, but a more telling stat was shot attempts -- St. Louis had 61 to Washington's 30 and controlled the play for most of the opening 40 minutes.
"We hemmed them in for two-and-a-half periods. They got no zone time and we got the zone time," Hitchcock said. "We made them take penalties on us. We got into their defense early in the game and stayed on the hunt. ... I think the players really dug in today. They knew we were missing some people and they dug in big time. We didn't just dig in to survive -- we played a heck of a hockey game."
Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau about 36 hours before the start of this contest, and only had a practice and a morning skate to make any changes he deemed necessary. When Boudreau took over four years prior, his first game was in Philadelphia and the Capitals used an early power-play goal to instill a new sense of confidence en route to an overtime victory.
There was no early signature moment like that for the Capitals in this contest, though Nicklas Backstrom did score on a nice feed from Alex Ovechkin to give Washington a fleeting early lead. The Capitals had just five shots in the first period and six in the second.
"It happens with transition," Hunter said. "They don't have [the system] down pat yet and I think they got better as the game went on and they competed real hard. That's the most important thing and that's what you need to win."
In the immediate future, the Capitals dropped to 10th in the Eastern Conference. The coaching change was about fixing long-term problems as much as short-term gains, and both players and Hunter talked at length about the process it will take for the players to master and then employ the system and identity the new coach is looking for.
"I have a feeling games are going to be really tight like they were tonight," Mike Knuble said. "If we're going to err on a side, I think he wants us to stay on the side of caution, maybe live to fight another time and get the puck out. Don't step up and take a chance. If you do, don't be 50/50 or even be 80/20, if you're stepping up you'd better be 100 percent you'll get that puck, and you better get it or don't come back to the bench.
"It will take time and guys are going to work hard. As long as we work hard, it will be all right but it is probably going to be tight games the rest of the way for sure."
Added Matt Hendricks: "I think he's learning as well as we are. He's learning what buttons make us work. I think he's done a great job so far with implementing a game plan in such a short time period and make sure everyone in the room knows it. You could definitely see tonight when we were sticking to it we had a lot of opportunities. Maybe not so many great opportunities, but we were sustaining a lot of zone time in their end, a lot of puck control. We weren't in our defensive zone. Then again you could see when you have a few breakdowns, this team is really good and guys put them in the net."
Backstrom gave the Capitals the lead midway through the first period, but the Blues evened the score less than five minutes later. Alex Steen's one-timer from the top of the zone slammed off the crossbar, but Oshie was there near the far post to deposit the rebound.
Oshie's seventh goal of the season quelled any chance for the home team to build off the opening goal.
"I think that just comes with ... I guess Hitch's term is funneling the puck to the net," Oshie said when asked about the team's resiliency. "For me, I've been going to the net a little bit more this year and that's really paid off for me just getting those lucky goals -- just being in the right place at the right time."
D'Agostini benefited from a goaltending error by Washington's Tomas Vokoun to put the Blues in front 8:54 into the second period. D'Agostini put a harmless looking shot from the right circle on net, but Vokoun did not secure it, and in the resulting scrum the goalie was knocked to the ice.
D'Agostini corralled the puck and calmly skated around the net for an easy wraparound tally. It was his sixth goal of the season.
"We're still working some things out but it is going well," Oshie said. "Those first few games, everyone is playing for a new coach and everyone's trying to make a good first impression and work hard, and it seems like we haven't taken our feet off the gas since then."