ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA - It's back.
Dale Hunter is flashing his trademark smile these days.
The same sly grin that, during his playing career, used to get under the skins of infuriated opponents as much as his stick did, driving them bonkers in the process.
The same one that, with a single look back then, sent a message to his teammates that one of the most ornery hombres in the NHL was ready to lay it all on the line by any means possible, whether they be fair or foul.
And on Monday afternoon, just two days before his Washington Capitals will face off against the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in the seventh and deciding game of their first-round series, it was there again.
Hunter, now the coach of the Capitals, showed off his pearly whites on this drizzly, chilly Virginia afternoon after being asked by QMI Agency what his plans will be after this season has come to an end.
It has been widely speculated that Hunter, once the Caps playoff run is over, will head back to London, where he and brother Mark control one of the most lucrative and successful franchises in all of junior hockey, the Knights.
What about it, coach?
"Haven't thought about it," he chuckled. "I'm living for the moment right now. Nothing better than being in the Stanley Cup playoffs."
You suspect that, deep down, Hunter knows what path he's going to take once this post-season is done. He's just not going to show his hand. That is not Dale Hunter's way.
For the time being, he's just enjoying the ride as an NHL coach.
Hunter was hired by Caps general manager George McPhee on Nov. 28, replacing the fired Bruce Boudreau. For Hunter, who had enjoyed being entrenched as the Knights coach, the decision to leave London wasn't as much about getting a shot at being behind an NHL bench as it was about being able to return to the Washington franchise he had played for from 1987-99.
"I like coaching the kids back in London, the up and comers," Hunter told QMI. "But when the chance came to coach the Washington Caps, where I played for a long time and where George is the GM, I had to take it. I know the owners. I played here. It was an opportunity to come here and try to win the Stanley Cup. I never did it as a player so that's why I decided to come.
"(The London area), it's our home town right there. My famiy's there and stuff. And you are coaching young kids.
"Then you come here and realize how young these kids here are, too. It's a teaching moment and I enjoy teaching. In junior you teach how to be a pro. Here they already are pros. It's not as much teaching in that way. But I enjoy both."
When Hunter first installed this defence-oriented system upon his arrival in Washington, it took a while for the players to drink his Kool-Aid. But a late-season surge that allowed the Caps to squeeze into the playoffs, followed by an impressive six games of fiercely-contested post-season hockey, has been evidence enough that Hunter has indeed left his fingerprints on this roster.
Alex Ovechkin is accepting less ice time.
Alexander Semin is blocking shots. (We're not kidding here. And no, the pucks are not just plunking him as he unsuccessfully tries to get out of the way. The enigmatic Semin actually has been sacrificing his body for the good of the team.)
"When you see guys doing those things who don't usually do it, it shows guys are buying into Dale's system," forward Jay Beagle said.
It might not be the flashiest style but it works. The fact that the once down-and-out Caps have yet another chance to oust the defending champs is proof of that.
"To win in the playoffs, we know we have to play defence and it was our job to teach them not to be as freewheeling as we used to be," Hunter said. "Come playoff time, you see it not just in our series but all the other ones except for the Pittsburgh series. If you can have defence on top of offence, you'll have a good team.
"Boston won it last year. They had good scorers and stuff but their main theme was defence. We have to shut down teams and play well defensively to win. And that's why they won the Stanley Cup last year.
"Our guys are buying in. They're here right now and they want to win. Sometimes the role one game is not as big as the next game because of the matchups and stuff but they accept it. They have the 'whatever you want coach' type attitude and that's ideal as a coach."
Through it all, Hunter remembers what it was like during his playing days, when many a coaching decision would be reason for head scratching, to put it mildly.
"I've been through it," he said. "I played for a long time so I know what they're feeling on that (players) side of the locker room. Your always wondering 'Why is coach doing this?' So I think it helps that I know that. You then try to adjust accordingly to it."
Suddenly, the trademark grin returns.
Hunter is thinking about Game 7 again and it's getting him cranked up. Memories of road hockey games and afternoons of shinny on outside rivers in the Petrolia, Ont., area come flooding back.
"It doesn't get better than this," Hunter said. "As a kid growing up, you're always playing out on a pond or ball hockey, you are always playing Game 7 and it's always going to go overtime, too. And you always get the winner.
"That's why the guys need to enjoy this. You're going to Game 7. You know both teams will be working their tails off to win the game.
"You need to enjoy the moment."
Right now, that's exactly what Dale Hunter is doing.
After that, well, only Dale Hunter really knows what his next move will be.
Hunter surprised at Torres' 25-gamer
Hunter is no stranger to lengthy suspensions for indiscretions committed at playoff time.
Back in 1993, Hunter, then a player with the Washington Capitals, received a 21-game ban for blindsiding New York Islanders forward Pierre Turgeon, who was celebrating a goal. It was the longest suspension ever handed out for an incident that took place in the playoffs.
The Phoenix Coyotes' Raffi Torres has taken over that dubious distinction after recently being slapped with a 25-game suspension by NHL sheriff Brendan Shanahan for laying out Chicago's Marian Hossa earlier in the first round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Even Hunter admits he was caught a bit off-guard by the severity of the punishment issued to Torres.
"The 25 games? Well, they must have gone on about the repeat offender, the way it sounded," Hunter told QMI Agency.
"Actually, I was surprised it was that many games myself."