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Capitals work on getting Hunter's system down

by Corey Masisak

ARLINGTON, Va. -- This has already been quite a week for the Washington Capitals, and it isn't going to get any easier Thursday night.

To recap, the Capitals welcomed a new head coach Monday, played their first game with him Tuesday and welcomed a new assistant coach Wednesday. Now all that's left for Thursday is welcoming the rival Pittsburgh Penguins to Verizon Center to face Sidney Crosby for the first time since the Winter Classic last Jan. 1 when he sustained the first of two hard hits in consecutive games that led to his concussion.

"It is tough coming in and playing Pittsburgh right away, but what better challenge then playing, in my opinion, one of the, if not the best team in the League and the hardest players to play against?" Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said.

The focus for the Capitals, regardless of the opponent, remains squarely on themselves this week. Yes, it will be the first time facing Crosby in 11 months and the first time the two teams meet since Arron Asham knocked out Jay Beagle in a fight and made taunting gestures after.


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Still, the bigger issue for Washington is trying to learn new coach Dale Hunter's system and adapt to his philosophy -- and in turn fix what has ailed the Capitals in the past 16 games (5-10-1). The defensemen also have a new assistant coach to answer to in Jim Johnson, who replaces Bob Woods.

There is a lot going on this week for the Capitals, and what they need more than anything is practice time and patience.

"I think it is going to get better and better every game," Nicklas Backstrom said. "It is just small things we've been talking about and he's been telling us. I think in the end it is more to simplify and when we get that it is going to be good. He seems like he's very smart and he's telling us good things all the time.

"We've been practicing it, and we have new things going in the defensive zone. You've just got to practice it and practice it and then it gets in your head. Then you'll be able to just do it."

Added Alzner: "It is a good system once we get it down. We'll be like St. Louis, who is on fire right now, and is incredibly hard to play against."

Hunter's message to the Capitals has been pretty simple: Fix the defense first, and the offense will follow. Ironically, that is the same message departed coach Bruce Boudreau deployed when he asked the team to play a more conservative system last season.

The team will likely deploy a more rigid 1-2-2 look to defend the neutral zone with Hunter in charge. While other players said the changes are minor, Alzner believes they are a little larger in scope.

"There are a few big differences -- pretty much all in the d-zone," Alzner said. "We're a team that used to switch a lot and certain people were always doing the coverage down low, and now everybody is. We're sticking with the guy more, which I think in the end will make it less confusing because you have your guy and you stick with him and you cover him. It is up to you to win that battle, which I like."

Added Hunter: "A lot of it is positional. I think last night the D did a good job. There was a lot of pressure, and [the Blues] are a good skating team and got in on the forecheck. They handled it well. We have to be more positionally correct."

Washington played better defense Tuesday night in a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues, but the offense sagged behind. The Blues controlled the play at times, and finished with more than double the shot attempts (61-30) as the Capitals.

It was the type of contest a Ken Hitchcock-coached team likes to play. The Blues clogged up the neutral zone, and then attacked Washington's defensemen on the forecheck.

If the Capitals are going to play more like the Blues, they are going to have to do a better job of emulating what Hitchcock's charges did to them Tuesday night.

"It probably won't be as exciting for fans who are used to the run-and-gun, but we're going to get chances off the other team's mistakes, which they are going to make," Alzner said. "It is my kind of game -- defense first and the offense will come."

Added Hunter: "You play the 1-2-2, and I believe in the 1-2-2 where we've got to get better is when they turn the puck over. You've got to counter. We've got to move the puck up quickly when they're caught and we'll get the odd-man rushes. Then we have speed through the neutral zone when they turn it over. When the chance is there, we have to forecheck. We have to play in their zone.

"You've got to stick to the system. There are going to be some games where you score more goals. We had some chances that we didn't bury, and that's part of the game. It is hockey. Every game is going to be a hard-fought game, and you have to learn to play that way. The game is fast and players know how to play defense."
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