WASHINGTON, D.C. - Just over five minutes into Thursday's game between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, Arron Asham got free behind the net and sent a pass through the crease to a waiting Craig Adams, who was open on the left side for an easy tap-in goal. On the bench, Capitals head coach Dale Hunter shook his head in disgust.
Six seconds after Adams' goal, John Erskine dropped the gloves with Asham, seeking retribution for the latter's involvement in knocking out Jay Beagle during the teams' last meeting in mid-October. Erskine returned the favor and knocked Asham to the ice.
It was at that moment when Washington began its metamorphosis into the identity of its new head coach.
The Caps literally threw themselves at anyone wearing a white jersey, totaling 19 hits. Alex Ovechkin led the charge with five hits of his own, most of which sent those victimized falling to the ice. The tempo quickened as both teams flew up and down the ice. The way the Caps were forechecking and backchecking (especially the latter), it looked like a highlight reel of games Hunter played in himself. it was easily the Caps' most spirited period of the season.
Even with a 13-4 shot disadvantage and 1-0 deficit at the end of the period, the Caps had an aura of confidence about them that hadn't been seen in recent weeks.
"The slate's clean," Karl Alzner said. "The guys feel confident right now. The wins are gonna come eventually. We know we can do it. We've got a good team. I think that the main thing is just keeping our confidence going and sticking to what we're learning right now and in the end, we will be good."
Washington knew that there would be a transition period learning a new system, one that puts an emphasis on forechecking, creating turnovers and "man-to-man" coverage. On Thursday, the Caps did all of those things well, but did not take advantage, losing 2-1.
"I think we are just trying to come out with some speed and some energy and then feed off of the crowd," Joel Ward said. "Even though we were down, we felt pretty good about ourselves. We just didn't capitalize, that's the bottom line. They scored last."
The Caps only had 17 shots on goal (including only two in the third period), tied for a season low. In two games under Hunter, the Capitals have 36 shots. While that might be a cause for concern, Washington realizes that the offensive output will eventually match its defensive counterpart.
"We had a few chances," Hunter said. "We played a little too much in our own end, so we have to get the puck out quicker, where we have possession of the puck and move the puck quicker out of our own end. I think it's very tiresome to the guys and [by] the time they get out, they have to dump and change, so we have to spend less time in there."
"The players competed and we had some chances," he continued. "They're a good team over there but it was a 1-1 game and they got a chance and they buried it. So that's the way the game goes. We had a few chances around the net and we're getting better at it, it just takes time."
Despite the losses, when looking at the first two games of Hunter's tenure as coach, you can tell that that the Capitals have turned a corner, albeit a small one. The overall team effort is there and there is confidence in defeat that there wasn't at all during Bruce Boudreau's final days. There are no moral victories, but there are plenty of positives. Evolution is a process that takes time, but the Capitals hope that it doesn't take too long.
"It can't be down the line," Jason Chimers said. "It's got to be now. We got to get people stepping up and scoring some goals, doing the little things. It was a good game overall. They had a lot of shots but a lot of them were outside. It's a tough way to lose, but we got that kind of effort, it'll be better. We came out pretty good. If we keep effort like that, the wins will come."