May 9, 2012
Hunter's fingerprints all over Caps
By STEVE SIMMONS, QMI Agency
WASHINGTON - Dale Hunter's one-season odyssey as coach of the Washington Capitals may come to an end as early as Saturday night -- the choice to leave clearly his, not theirs -- should his hockey club not advance against the New York Rangers.
But what a strange and uplifting and marvelous time it has been for the Capitals.
Hunter is so much like his hockey club, hanging on with fight and fist, coaching period to period, game to game, and now his 7th seeded Capitals will have an opportunity to play Game 7 against the top seed in the Eastern Conference for the right to advance to the NHL semifinal. And the say-little coach, straight out of junior, a former star with this franchise, with all the history and odds against him, has transformed this historically indifferent Capitals team into the most resilient team -- not necessarily the best team -- in the Stanley Cup tournament.
Hunter's fingerprints are all over this team after just 73 games on the job. The way he coaches. The expectations he demands. The manner in which his entire lineup has responded to him. The players started out hating him and now he has them eating out of his hands.
His unorthodox, 'I don't care what you think,' style of decision making may be baffling to outsiders, but not to those who play for the Caps. Not anymore.
A piece of Hunter was displayed at the beginning and the end of the must-win Game 6 against the Rangers Wednesday night. Hunter penciled in fourth-liner Joel Ward as his starting right winger. This after Ward's four-minute high sticking penalty in Game 5 turned victory to defeat. Hunter opened Game 6 with Ward, and when the Caps coach needed a penalty killer late, with the Rangers goalie pulled in the final minute, he went to Ward again.
Those messages from Hunter were clear: We're a team and you're part of it. And we've got your back.
That's the kind of thing that appears cliched to the outside world. But inside a dressing room, that matters. It's a galvanizing move that brings players together.
No matter what happens in Game 7, this hockey club has grown significantly under Hunter.
This is, more than the Bruce Boudreau teams, more than the previous Capitals teams of great expectation, a tight unit that understands how to play to win. The victory in Game 6 was Hunter's seventh of his first playoff season. That equals the best Boudreau managed in his five post-seasons on the job in Washington.
Game 7 Saturday night will be the Caps' 14th game of the playoffs. That will equal the most playoff games Boudreau managed in any season. The Boudreau teams scored more and competed less. They were more about talent and less about structure. Hunter has brought the kind of purpose to this team that he himself displayed in his years as an ornery centreman in Quebec and Washington.
Most coaches putting up this kind of post-season would naturally return to the job, get a raise and a new contract, demand and receive some security. But Hunter has left the indication that this isn't his preferred location. He has proven, in a short time, to be an excellent NHL coach, matching up well in the first and second rounds of the playoffs against two of the NHL's best, John Tortorella and Kevin Dineen.
The way he has managed the circumstantial ice time of Alexander Ovechkin and Alex Semin has been bold and historical. Often, the less Ovechkin and Semin have played, the better they've played and the more the Caps win. Ovechkin, on the power play, scored the first Washington goal Wednesday. Washington's second goal came to be when the somewhat-invisible Semin made the kind of play no one will talk about today because it doesn't appear on the scoresheet.
Semin battled Marc Staal on the boards, got knocked down, kept battling on his knees, got up and sent the puck across the ice to defenceman John Carlson, who in desperation shot the puck at the net. Nicklas Backstrom deflected the puck to Jason Chimera, who shot into a nearly empty net. If Semin doesn't get up, there's no goal.
But these Capitals, like their coach, keep getting up.
Should he want to stay, Hunter could demand almost any kind of contract and he would get it. But he owns the London Knights junior franchise, is personally wealthy from it, loves coaching kids and being around family, doesn't adore some of the external demands of being an NHL coach, and has control of his future.
A future he hasn't yet declared.
But first there is Game 7 Saturday.
It might be Hunter's goodbye. It might be his hello to the conference final.
Whatever happens, it's his call. This is Hunter's time, Hunter's team.
And what a first -- and maybe last -- impression he has made.