WASHINGTON - If Dale Hunter needs a role model as a new coach trying to make the Washington Capitals play better defence and with more confidence, all he has to do is study Ken Hitchcock and the St. Louis Blues.
Hunter's NHL coaching debut was spoiled Tuesday night by the stingiest defence in the league. Hitchcock's Blues were a shutdown machine once again, limiting Alex Ovechkin to one shot on goal Tuesday night in a 2-1 victory.
"We didn't give up anything in two periods," said Hitchcock, who is 8-1-2 since taking over from Davis Payne on Nov. 7. "We're starting to dial in the way we need to play to win hockey games. When you play this well, it's a good feeling."
T.J. Oshie and Matt D'Agostini scored, and Jaroslav Halak made 18 saves for the Blues, who have allowed only 13 goals in Hitchcock's 11 games.
"The first three games, everyone's playing in front of a new coach, you're trying to make a good first impression," Oshie said. "Everyone's playing hard, and it seems like we haven't taken our foot off the gas since then."
Sounds like a perfect blueprint for the Capitals, who were in a tailspin when Bruce Boudreau was fired on Monday and replaced by former team captain Hunter.
Making his debut behind an NHL bench—he spent the last 11 years coaching in the Ontario Hockey League—Hunter got a better defensive effort from the Capitals but not much offensive spark. Washington was outplayed until desperation time in the third period, but at least it didn't suffer the odd-man rushes in the uninspired routs of Boudreau's last days.
"You can't set a timeframe to it," Hunter said, "but I want them to get better and better every game. ... By watching them live now, we've got some stuff to work on."
Nicklas Backstrom got the lone goal for the Capitals, and Washington was outshot 30-19. Two stars who bore the brunt of Boudreau's more disciplinarian ways in recent weeks failed to get on track in the new regime's debut. Ovechkin supplied the assist on Backstrom's first-period goal, but the two-time league MVP's only shot on goal came with 18:14 to play, and of both Alexander Semin's shots came in the third period.
Hunter and the players said the defence was the first priority. The offence will come around eventually.
"We did what he asked us to do," said Ovechkin, who has only one goal in his last nine games, "and I think if we (are) going to play the same way, we (are) going to get some success."
Wearing a blue suit—"the only one I got," he said—and a lime green tie before the game and a red one during the game, Hunter took his spot behind the bench to cheers from Capitals fans who watched him play for the franchise from 1987-99 and can look up anytime to the rafters to see the banner featuring his retired No. 32 jersey. The team's production staff put together slick videos with the themes "History welcomes you back, Coach" and "November 29, 2011, back where you belong," the second one bringing the crowd to its feet during a first-period break.
The dividends weren't immediately apparent. The Blues controlled play from the opening whistle, winning individual battles and keeping the puck bottled up at the Capitals' end. It took a counterattack started by goalie Tomas Vokoun to produce the first goal, with Ovechkin feeding Backstrom for the one-time wrister that went underneath Halak's right leg pad.
The Blues got their well-deserved tying goal later in the first period when Oshie put in the rebound when Alexander Steen's shot hit the underside of the crossbar.
The Blues took the lead in the second period when Patrik Berglund kept alive the rebound of Chris Stewart's shot, then D'Agostini gathered the puck and beat Vokoun on a wraparound.
Boudreau won 200 games faster than any coach in modern NHL history but couldn't find sustained success in the playoffs. His attempt to make the players—including team captain Ovechkin—more accountable this season didn't fly, and he was dismissed after losing six of eight.
Now they're getting a crash course in the ways of Hunter, who has to install his system a little bit at a time between games.
"It's not like having three days off or something," Hunter said, "where you can really hammer it home."
NOTES: The Capitals announced the first change to Hunter's staff, with Jim Johnson hired as an assistant to replace Bob Woods. Johnson was the head coach of the AHL's Norfolk Admirals for 39 games in 2009-10. He played 13 seasons as a defenceman in the NHL, including two-plus seasons in Washington from 1993-96. ... St. Louis won at Washington for the first time since Jan. 28, 2003. ... Hunter is the second coach to move straight from the Ontario Hockey League to the NHL in the past four seasons. Peter DeBoer, now with the New Jersey Devils, was hired by the Florida Panthers in 2008.