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Caps know patience is key to success under Hunter

by Dan Rosen /
WASHINGTON -- Signs of progress are an absolute must for a team attempting to learn a new system on the fly with an unfamiliar coach pushing them. The Washington Capitals felt there were some of those signs Thursday night despite a second straight 2-1 loss under Dale Hunter.

Nicklas Backstrom said they were tighter on the Pittsburgh Penguins then they were on the St. Louis Blues earlier in the week. Karl Alzner mentioned how the Capitals were able to get a cycle going against Pittsburgh's defense, and it allowed them to move the puck up to the defensemen. Hunter mentioned the quality chances the Capitals had around Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

"It just takes time," Hunter said.


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The Capitals appear willing to give it exactly that because, ironically enough, they were in a similar position one year ago, when HBO's cameras were rolling through their eight-game winless streak that was largely a result of a system change being implemented by former coach Bruce Boudreau.

Boudreau, like Hunter is right now, was attempting to get the Capitals to play a system more focused on defense. They had to hit rock bottom in a 7-0 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden before they started to believe in what Boudreau was trying to do.

Three games later, the Capitals snapped out of their funk -- and they went on to win a fourth straight Southeast Division title thanks to a new approach that enabled them to finish fourth in the NHL in goals-against at 2.33 per game.

"It's very similar (to last December), yeah," Alzner said of what the Capitals are going through now. "Making the change halfway or a quarter of the way through the season because you have to, and the guys will pick it up. Everybody is smart that is in here, and they're in here for a reason. They're going to pick it up. (Thursday) was one of those nights where we were getting better at that. Eventually it's going to work out."

Alzner said the Capitals belief in Hunter's way is buoyed by the fact that they were able to make the system change work last year.

"We all know that it does work," he said.

However, there is one glaring difference between the two situations -- last season the Capitals still found a way to score enough goals, even at 2.5 per game in the 48 games following their winless streak. But in two games under Hunter they haven't generated nearly enough offense to win.

They've been outshot 65-36 and Alex Ovechkin has put only two shots on goal. Even more telling is the fact that St. Louis and Pittsburgh combined for 130 attempts at the net (including shots on goal, shots blocked and shots that missed) while Washington managed only a combined 72 in the two games, including just one from Ovechkin against the Penguins.

"I think we're playing good defensively, but we have to turn that defense into offense," Backstrom said.

Both Hunter and Backstrom said making that transition happen is the most challenging aspect of learning a new defensive-oriented system. The obvious way to overcome that challenge is to not allow your opponent to keep the pressure on the way the Penguins and Blues have this week.

"We have to get the puck out quicker, move it out quicker from our own end," Hunter said. "I think it's very tiresome to the guys and by the time they get it out they have to change it up."

The amount of attempts at the net they're allowing is glaring proof that Washington has a ways to go, but Alzner said the lack of offense won't deter the Capitals from attempting to perfect Hunter's system.

It's enough after two games that they can already see part of it working. Remember, this team has allowed just four goals in 120 minutes under Hunter after giving up 11 goals in its final two games under Boudreau.

"If it's still not working once we're executing right then obviously we'll probably make a change, but I think we've got to get to that level of everybody knows it and does it second nature before we even think about changing," Alzner said. "If we start losing games 4-0 or 4-1 or 5-1 then maybe you start (thinking it doesn't work), but 2-1 and 2-1 -- we can score more than one goal a game, and that's our fault."

So, yes, the Capitals are willing to give this new way under Hunter the time it deserves, just like they did a year ago under Boudreau. They'll continue that way as long as they feel, as they did Thursday night, that progress is being made.

They've just got to hope that their patience will eventually be their virtue.

"The guys all know that it can happen. We're all ready for that," Alzner said. "I don't think anybody is going to get down. It doesn't matter if you're first in the east or eighth in the east, just get to playoffs and figure it out from there."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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