By Adam Vingan
Lost in Monday’s coaching change that saw Bruce Boudreau exit and Dale Hunter enter at his expense is the fact that the Washington Capitals do indeed have a game Tuesday. For the second week in a row, the Caps have a three-game homestand, which begins Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center.
The Caps and Blues rarely meet; Tuesday’s game will be the only one between the two this season, though they met twice last season, both Washington wins. Yet, despite the unfamiliarity, the Caps will see plenty of familiar faces.
One of those players making a return to Verizon Center is Jason Arnott, who spent the last two months of the regular season and entire postseason with the Caps last season after being acquired from the New Jersey Devils at the trade deadline. General manager George McPhee brought Arnott in last season to inject some experience into a roster that relied heavily on its young stars. Though Arnott only played in 20 total games for Washington, he left a lasting impression.
“He was good to talk to,” Nicklas Backstrom said of Arnott after Tuesday’s morning skate. “I remember one thing. When I had my slump there, we talked a little bit and he was telling me some advice. He was just good to talk to. He was a great leader for me. He says the right things. That’s why I liked him.”
One player, however, that Backstrom and some of his teammates likely don’t like is Jaroslav Halak. While with the Montreal Canadiens in 2009-10, Halak stopped 128 of 131 Washington shots in the final three games of their 2010 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals matchup, a series that Montreal ultimately won in seven games after trailing 3-1. The Caps have played Halak since then; they defeated the Blues 4-1 last season at Scottrade Center. Tuesday will be Halak’s first game back at Verizon Center since the series-clinching Game 7 victory.
“He was just playing with so much confidence,” Roman Hamrlik, one of Halak’s teammates during that series, said. “As a goalie, it’s a huge plus. He was one of the biggest reasons why we went so deep in the playoffs. He stopped a lot of good scoring chances and gave us a chance to win games in the playoffs. Now he’s in St. Louis and he’s basically our enemy right now, but I still keep in touch with him. He’s working hard.”
Even Hunter, in his first NHL game as coach, will see a familiar face on the other bench: Ken Hitchcock. Under Hitchcock, the Blues are 7-1-2 and have jumped from the cellar of the Western Conference to the middle of the playoff race. Hunter played against Hitchcock-coached teams as a player and knowing his tendencies is helping him prepare.
“He’s a good coach,” Hunter said. “He’s coached forever. I’ve played against his teams a lot. They’re disciplined teams and they work hard and play a sound system. We have to play a sound system and be patient and we have to work them because they’re a working team.”