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capitals 6, maple leafs 2

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri picks up a Maple Leafs jersey on the ice after being defeated by the Washington Capitals during third period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Wednesday, January 7, 2015.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

It didn't take long for the tweets to start filtering out.

With the Toronto Maple Leafs down early, and eventually by a few goals, fans began peppering social media with two words on the first night for new interim coach Peter Horachek.

"Fire Horachek."

Tough crowd.

Sure, comments like that were mostly made in jest, but it's fair to say Wednesday's 6-2 loss to the Washington Capitals wasn't exactly the result the organization was hoping for after the divorce from Randy Carlyle a day earlier.

A deeper evaluation? On the whole, the Leafs looked okay. Some of the (many) new line combinations showed potential, and the Leafs weren't snowed in on the shot clock (they led 33-26). But there were still glaring errors that ended up in their net, the kind that were prevalent under the last bench boss and likely will be for a while.

Shockingly, Horachek may need more than one practice and one morning skate to right the ship.

If it's even possible with this cast.

"There's always disappointment when we lose like that," Horachek said. "But there were some good things."

"It's frustrating," winger Dan Winnik added. "I thought we did a great job defensively to limit a team like that to 25 shots when they had some power plays. I think we gave them some goals."

You need to be careful in reading too much into 60 minutes of hockey – especially in a game in which some of the goals were quirky bounces and Capitals netminder Braden Holtby was a difference maker – but here's what we know from this one.

Horachek won't be afraid to try some very different things, such as playing Phil Kessel with Winnik and Mike Santorelli in the third period.

He is going to give increased opportunities to different players, like youngster Richard Panik, who played 13 minutes after averaging around eight all year.

He will use his 12 forwards more than his predecessor did – everyone but rookie Sam Carrick played at least 10 minutes – and mix and match heavily when things aren't working in-game.

And David Clarkson is somehow curiously still on the second power play unit, which conceded one really ugly shorthanded goal early in the second period that was a back breaker.

But the Leafs go into this situation with a new coach right in midseason, with 41 games to play, and it should be a time for experimentation and an openness to trying anything.

As has become the mantra under new president Brendan Shanahan and assistant GM Kyle Dubas, the process is going to be more important than immediate results, too, meaning Horachek is being evaluated on a lot more than the score every night.

The organization is now looking intently at analytics, for example, and they knew that under Carlyle theirs were increasingly putting them in the basement in key areas like puck possession.

On Wednesday, the Leafs had a 55-per-cent possession rating, their fourth-best result this season and second-best against a team not named Buffalo.

That matters to those in charge.

The idea is: Keep making strides in areas like that and the wins will come.

And will be built on more than they've been in the past.

"They had 12 chances," Horachek explained. "There's games [earlier this season] where we were giving up 40 shots and they're getting 25, 26 chances. So they had 12. Our possession time that we chart and look at, our numbers were better than theirs… We gave up goals that were untimely and unnecessary and we can eliminate those things. Which is the positive thing."

"You can't change everything overnight," defenceman Stephane Robidas said. "It's a game of mistakes. They're going to happen. But you've just got to keep fighting and you've got to stay positive and you've got to keep working. Keep doing the right things and eventually it's going to pay off. The law of averages. It's true – if you keep doing the right thing, eventually you're going to get results."

On Wednesday, they simply didn't.

More important than making the postseason this year is learning exactly what the Leafs have here. Is this an 85-point team (awful) or a 95-point team (slightly above average)?

Can they play better defensively? How much is salvageable on the roster? Who should be re-signed and who needs to go?

Who will buy in and who won't?

Unlike Carlyle, Horachek is. He's auditioning for a job here. A long, long time assistant, he wants to be a head coach in the NHL full-time – to be like his mentor, Caps coach Barry Trotz – and as a 54-year-old from nearby Hamilton, this is a dream opportunity.

While those in Leafland are dreaming of marquee names like Mike Babcock (Detroit) and Todd McLellan (San Jose) should their teams let them go, Horachek is the underdog in this fight, but he's in it. And he's going to do whatever he can to ingratiate himself to Shanahan and Co.

Carlyle wasn't and that put him on a different page from everyone else in the organization, with even GM Dave Nonis finally relenting and agreeing he had to go on the weekend.

"How much of a difference can a new coach really make?" is a fair question, but the interesting twist here is it won't just be Horachek calling the shots. He'll have input from way up the line and will use it, which won't necessarily be the case if and when a heavy hitter comes in next year and negotiates for autonomy.

The new arrangement didn't work on Day 2, in Game 1, but there's an awful long way to go. And if this game was any indication, we're about to see all sorts of interesting thought experiments put to the test with this lineup.

If it doesn't succeed, at the very least Shanahan has a much better understanding of what's there heading into the trade deadline and the off-season, both of which are going to have to be busy.

"Bottom line is we've just got to get better," Robidas said.

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