Are Caps better with Hunter as coach?

Capitals head coach Dale Hunter gives instructions to players during a game against the Blues at...

Capitals head coach Dale Hunter gives instructions to players during a game against the Blues at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., Nov. 29, 2011. (MOLLY RILEY/Reuters)

CHRIS STEVENSON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:22 AM ET

MONTREAL - Dale Hunter took his Washington Capitals into Wednesday's game against the Montreal Canadiens with a 12-9-1 record since taking over for the deposed Bruce Boudreau at the end of November.

That just happens to be the same record that got Boudreau ousted as coach when the Caps were sitting eighth in the Eastern Conference.

The Caps went into Wednesday's night's game still in eighth.

They came out of it in third, tied for first place in the Southeast Division with the Florida Panthers, but owning the tiebreaker with more regulation and overtime wins.

The Caps beat the Habs 3-0 -- despite having just 16 shots -- in a game that was bigger for Montreal than it was for Washington since the Canadiens are now 10 points out of the eighth spot in the East. With a power play that continues to be the worst in the league and goaltender Carey Price looking no more than ordinary, there's little reason to believe the Canadiens can overcome the deficit with 36 games left.

The Caps' record might have been the same as it was under Boudreau going into Wednesday, but there's a difference in the way the Caps have been playing. Under Boudreau, they were like Patrick Ewing talking about NBA players during a work stoppage: "We make a lot of money, but we spend a lot of money." The Caps scored a lot of goals under Boudreau (70), but gave up more: 73.

In his turn at the till, in the same number of games, the Caps have scored just 57 for Hunter, but have allowed only 54.

So, are they better off?

"They're giving up a lot less goals," said one scout, "and that might be the important thing. Maybe they are going to be able to pull it together."

Hunter has demanded a greater amount of accountability and maybe, in the long term, that will yield results.

"The guys like to play for him. They enjoy it. Everybody knows if you're going to make a mistake you're going to hear about it," said moribund Caps star Alex Ovechkin. "It's not going to be coming from you guys (the media). It's going to be coming from him and that's a good point."

Ovechkin, of course, is always going to be the key to any coach's success in Washington.

While he has endorsed Hunter, the fact is he had one point less under Hunter (17) than he had under Boudreau. But he scored his 19th goal of the season Wednesday night, putting him on pace for for 35, an improvement over last years 32.

He is also a minus player this season, something that hasn't happened before.

He was asked if he was disappointed with his production.

"No, it's OK. (The stats) aren't the same, but we try to do the best as we can out there. Sometimes it's not as good, but last games I feel good about myself.

"It's not over yet and I'm going to try and get closer to the guys leading the stats. I'm going to try and do my best, but the most important thing right is to win the game. I don't want to talk about my personal stats or my personal game."

The reason he has a cap hit of $9.5 million until 2021 is because of the way those stats used to be. He's right about it all being about wins, but it will be easier to get those wins if Ovechkin produced according to his salary.

As a player, Hunter was a critical mass of terrorism and talent -- he is the only player to have 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes -- and when confronted with a problem on the ice, either stickhandled by it or ran over it.

Sounds like he's going to need the same approach as a coach with this bunch.

"That might be the toughest team in the league to coach," said another scout. "You look at some of the players and you wonder, 'Does it matter who the coach is?'"

Great question

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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