Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Can Caps Find Their Way Under Hunter?

By Mike Chen

With every NHL team around the midway point of their schedule, there have been plenty of surprises, disappointments, and a sprinkling of status quo. But parity, that dirty word in today's NHL, continues to rear its head, and a five-game winning or losing streak can quickly turn a team's fortunes.

We've already seen teams flip-flop several times. The Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins both seemed to fall victim to the mythical Stanley Cup hangover, then turned it on to fight for conference dominance. The St. Louis Blues have been nearly unbeatable after mediocre play caused a coaching change. The usual suspects of San Jose, Chicago, and Detroit saw some stumbling before all three teams assumed their usual spots as Western Conference powerhouses.

And then we have the Washington Capitals. The Caps started hot, then floundered, then really floundered, then finally seemed to find their footing under new coach Dale Hunter. For a team loaded with talent, there won't be any answers until we get to May. However, this recent stretch does make it seem like the Caps have turned the corner.

What's the difference? They've still got hot-and-cold goaltending and they've had to deal with the longterm loss of defenseman Mike Green. However, if you took footage of the November 2011 Bruce Boudreau Capitals and the January 2012 Dale Hunter Capitals, the difference is clearly in the visuals: the Hunter Caps just seem to be trying harder.

Some teams come together immediately after a coach is fired — this year's St. Louis squad under Ken Hitchcock is a perfect example. Other teams take time to form an identity. The Boudreau Caps were, at their peak, a wildly entertaining run-and-gun team led by the non-stop enthusiasm of Alex Ovechkin. This year's Boudreau Caps seemed moribund, afraid to make mistakes, and tentative to do anything.

The Hunter Caps looked the same way for the first few weeks, and the changing of the guard looked like a stuck-in-neutral transition process. From about mid-December on, though, the Caps looked to regain some swagger while becoming a stingy defensive team; following a December 13 loss against the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington went 5-2-1 while keeping opponents to 2 or fewer goals in six of those eight games.

What else happened during that time? Alex Ovechkin woke up and started to look like himself again.

Make no mistake, the Caps have a talented lineup with numerous weapons. But Ovechkin represents the identity of the Caps, and it's pretty easy to see that when he looks listless, so does the rest of the squad. Tune into any of the November Caps games and you would have seen this crystal clear. And while Ovechkin didn't necessarily get things rolling when Hunter took over, he did begin to engage the games more physically. However, it took one direction from the coaching staff to really get him going again: shoot the puck more.

Since that simple directive came down, Ovechkin has started to become more like himself; in fact, his shots per game rose from 3.35 in November to 4.5 in December, and it's no coincidence that the winning streak to close out 2011 went hand-in-hand with Ovechkin's scoring streak. The Caps have half a season to really get things together, and while there are no guarantees, but you'd rather see a team start to pull itself out of the mud instead of mire in it — like where Bruce Boudreau's new team is at.

The other x-factor in play here? Defenseman Mike Green, who lasted a game and a half before pulling his groin. While Green's defensive woes are well documented, his importance in Washington's transition game can't be understated. When Green permanently returns to the lineup, he'll have to adjust his conditioning as well as learning Hunter's system.

Still, the biggest chip on the table is that it's just January. Earlier in the season, Kevin Dineen, head coach of the Southeast Division's Florida Panthers, was asked about their slumping division rivals, and he said that Washington could easily win 10 in a row and we'd all forget about November. If the team can fuse together Hunter's never-say-die attitude and Ovechkin's go-go-go demeanor, the Caps may find themselves in the best position entering the Stanley Cup playoffs that they've ever been. There's still a long road to travel, with the team starting to find its legs, they have just enough time to get healthy and get rolling.

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