Caps' Hunter makes no apologies
This wasn't Dale Hunter the prodigal son returning home to rebuild a talented but floundering franchise. Rather it was a favored, if slightly fearsome uncle come for a prolonged visit. Not sure how long he was going to stay, but you knew it was going to be interesting.
Even now as the Capitals prepare for a Game 7 encounter with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins on Wednesday night, there is no certainty about how this will play out either on the ice or behind the bench.
The sense is that if the Caps go out in the first round, Hunter will return to his farm and his junior hockey empire with the OHL's London Knights.
If he wins? Well, then it gets a little more interesting.
At the team's practice facility in Arlington, Va., Hunter insisted he has no idea what his plans are.
"No, I don't know," he told ESPN.com Tuesday. "I came here for the rest of the year and right now all I'm worrying about is tomorrow night."
Does the outcome of Wednesday's game change what he's thinking about doing?
"I don't know," Hunter said. "I don't even worry about that right now. I just came here to get these guys in the playoffs and take a run at a Stanley Cup. I didn't do it as a player, so that's why I wanted to come here. I knew we had a good team."
However this plays out, this has been an interesting experiment for both the Capitals and Hunter, one of the franchise's most endearing figures.
When Washington GM George McPhee decided he needed to make a change from Bruce Boudreau early in the season, he called on one of his most trusted hockey confidants: Hunter.
McPhee believed in Hunter's character and pedigree as one of the toughest players in franchise history, maybe in NHL history. He believed that Hunter's success in building and coaching one of the top junior franchises in North America would translate into success for the Caps.
It was a tremendous leap of faith given Hunter's long separation from the NHL game.
And the path the rookie coach and his team have followed has not been without its bumps. Not that any path followed by the gritty Hunter could be expected to be anything but slightly rutted.
At times Hunter has appeared to struggle with the NHL game and the handling of NHL players.
There were questions about how he managed his goaltenders during the regular season, although almost by default he ended up making the right choice in rookie Braden Holtby, who has been sensational in this first round.
His handling of his players' ice time has also come under scrutiny.
In a series that has featured a league-record six straight one-goal games, Hunter has restricted captain Alex Ovechkin's ice time either in trying to keep matchups to his liking or because of Ovechkin's defensive deficiencies.
In Game 4, Ovechkin played less than two minutes in the third period as the Caps parlayed a one-goal lead into a victory.
In Game 6, veteran minor leaguer Keith Aucoin earned 4:01 in power-play time, more than established NHLers Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer and almost a minute more than the team's leading playoff goal scorer, Alexander Semin. The Caps lost 4-3 in overtime.
Joel Ward, a playoff hero for Nashville a year ago who signed a four-year, $12 million contract in the offseason, has not enjoyed top-six minutes for most of the season.
Veteran Mike Knuble was a healthy scratch at times during the regular season and his role has change from previous years, when he often played on the top two forward units and was a regular power-play contributor.
And still, here we are with the Caps 60 minutes from an unexpected trip to the second round of the playoffs, Hunter going toe-to-toe with one of the top coaches in the NHL in Claude Julien.
Hunter makes no apologies for how he has handled things.
"You're not going to be always liked and most times you're not," Hunter said. "You've got to make tough decisions and there's always one happy that you moved them up and there's one [not happy], so you've got a 50-50 chance each time you make a decision, so you're making one mad so you're making someone happy. But I don't do it rash. I analyze it out what's best for the team."
Hunter is a make-your-own-breaks kind of guy. It's how he played. It's how he coaches.
"It's a reward system," he said. "It's what I believe in. If you're a fourth-line guy, you're going hard, you're going to move up lines and I try to reward it, I always liked it as a player. If I knew I'm going to play well I'm going to get more ice and that's the way it should be."
This is a Capitals team in the throes of trying to establish a new playoff identity, one that eluded them over the past few playoff years, just as any meaningful postseason success has eluded them.
"At times in the past when our offense went away or it was a struggle to score goals, it was now what? We were like, now what are we going to do?" Knuble said.
The veteran winger said he thought the Caps had improved defensively a year ago but were not good enough as they were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round.
"This year it's just been a little more conservative, defense-first approach," Knuble said. "In the past I think the identity of our team was a team that was going to try and outscore you, whether we tried to shake it or not."
That said, forging this identity has not been a seamless proposition.
"Bruce was here 20 games and Dale's been here 60. It's taken every bit of that 60 games to get everybody to buy in," Knuble said.
"Guys adjust, some guys first day they're drinking the Kool-Aid, other guys it takes a couple of months to get them to do it. You've got to change habits, you have to change tendencies and change habits. The offensive guys they've been offensive their whole life. Since they could wipe their nose they've been out there scoring goals. It's hard to get them to think a little bit differently. It's what's gotten you here."
"Not sure how he's done it, but as soon as the playoffs hit, he's gotten full buy-in," an Eastern Conference scout told ESPN.com. "Everyone's playing hard, including the guys who don't always. Having the hot goalie helps but he seems to be pushing the right buttons."
One of the lessons this first-round series has thus far provided is that this is no longer a Caps team that goes only as far as Ovechkin can take it.
Ovechkin has shown flashes of his old self in this series, but the team's chances of advancing don't necessarily hinge on Ovechkin blowing the doors off. Not anymore.
Not only is the team concept different when it comes to Ovechkin, so too is the idea that a Caps coach has to placate Ovechkin, coddle him.
The captain was candid Tuesday in describing his disappointment at not getting the ice time he is accustomed to and said that he's learning to accept those disappointments if it means a better outcome for the team.
"My role is still to score goals," Ovechkin said. "But sometimes in different situations he [Hunter] put different guys out there. If we win, we win; if we lose we're going to lose but I think everybody knows everybody wants to support each other no matter what.
"Of course sometimes you get angry you didn't play lots of minutes. Sometimes you get angry out there, but if it's good for the team you have to eat it and you have to stay in the same course. Of course sometimes I am get angry that I didn't play but it's normal routine, it's normal stuff."
Some people will lament that the once high-flying Capitals have become a team that is grinding out postseason wins. But if it means reversing a long-standing tradition of watching wildly entertaining hockey come crashing to earth long before the big prize gets handed out each June, Caps fans, and their players for that matter, will take it in a heartbeat.
"We have absolutely nothing to lose," center Nicklas Backstrom said Tuesday.
"I think everybody feels better. Everybody's working for each other, that's what you got to do. We keep doing like this, I think we'll win tomorrow. I'm sure we'll have a good chance."
And in the end, custodial coach or not, that's all Dale Hunter ever really represented.
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