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Blues continue to flourish, win 2-1
WASHINGTON -- If Dale Hunter needs a role model as a new coach trying to make the Washington Capitals play better defense 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 defense in the league. Hitchcock's Blues were a shutdown machine once again, limiting Alex Ovechkin to one shot on goal 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 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."
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 untracked 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 minutes, 14 seconds to play, and of both Alexander Semin's shots came in the third period.
Hunter and the players said the defense was the first priority. The offense eventually will come around.
"We did what he ask 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."
Hunter took his spot behind the bench to cheers from Capitals fans who watched him play for the franchise from 1987 to 1999 and can look up anytime to the rafters to see the banner featuring his retired No. 32 jersey.
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 the 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.
* The Capitals announced the first change to Hunter's staff, with Jim Johnson hired as an assistant to replace Bob Woods. Johnson was the coach of the AHL's Norfolk Admirals for 22 games in 2009-10.
* St. Louis won at Washington for the first time since Jan. 28, 2003.