With it, Dale Hunter's time behind an NHL bench may have come to an end as well.
That has nothing to do with Hunter's coaching ability. In less than a year with the Capitals, Hunter proved that he's more than capable of leading a team at this level.
But Hunter agreed to just a one-year deal when he took the reins after Bruce Boudreau was fired in November. He left a loaded London squad in the Ontario Hockey League where he was a co-owner, as well as a coach, to return to Washington, where he played 12 of his 19 penalty-filled seasons in the NHL as an abrasive but effective forward.
His coaching style has proven a similar mix of abrasiveness and effectiveness. The Caps went 30-23-7 under Hunter in the regular season, including 13-6-3 down the stretch to rally for a playoff spot. They then proceeded to knock off the defending champion Bruins in the opening round and took the top-seeded Rangers to seven games.
Hunter accomplished the seemingly impossible. He got the talented but enigmatic Capitals to buy into his team-first, defensive system in a way Boudreau never could. Alex Ovechkin saw his ice time cut when the Caps were protecting leads late but didn't revolt. Other players sacrificed personal stats, not to mention their bodies, to commit to Hunter's hard-hitting style.
And while the Caps weren't lighting up the scoresheet like they did at times under Boudreau, at least during the regular season, there were stats that showed what they were doing was working.
Washington led all teams in the playoffs through two rounds with 308 blocked shots. That's an average of 22 a game after averaging 15.9 in regular season. The Rangers, long known for their commitment to clogging shooting lanes in front of Henrik Lundqvist, were a distant second with 267 blocked shots in the same number of games. The Capitals were also second in the postseason with 454 hits (32.4 a game, up from 24.0 in the regular season), trailing only the Rangers (486).
"This one's really tough, because I really like the way we played," Washington forward Brooks Laich told reporters after the game. "I really liked our style of game. I thought we were a very difficult team to play against. … It's tough to score. It was a defensive series. The same way the first series [against Boston] was and the same way this series was, and I think you have to play like that to win. I really do. We've shot the lights out for three, four years in the past, and we haven't got anywhere. This year I think our identity is a lot more conducive to winning what we want to win."
The Caps have bought into Hunter's methods, but will they have him around to try to apply that approach over the course of a full season?
Hunter was noncommittal in his postgame news conference after Saturday's loss.
"It's not the time right now," Hunter told reporters when asked about his plans for next season.
Hunter did offer some hints that he may not be looking to race right back to London, though. He praised the play of the Capitals and their willingness and ability to adapt to the changes he brought to their style.
"There's a lot of character in that room," Hunter said. "Character is a big word. It means a lot. You see how we play, the sacrifices you have to make, and in that room there they did it. They played the type of hockey you have to play to win. We played a good team, too. It's just one of those things that both teams battled, and we just came up a goal short.
"I like the way we battled," Hunter added. "No one likes to lose, but we didn't give up right 'til the end."
And Hunter may not be ready to give up just yet, either. He noted that all of the teams currently headed to the conference finals showed that same kind of commitment, remaining steadfast that it's the approach needed to survive the grind of the NHL postseason.
"You see the teams that are left in the playoffs here now," Hunter said. "It's tough hockey out there, and they're playing it. That's the way we played, but we met up with a good team. The Rangers had a good year all year. They played hard, and we matched the hardness and played tooth and nail against them, and we just came a goal short.
"It's the right way to play," Hunter added. "To win, that's the way you have to play it. Next year you'll start off and that's your goal, to win."
Will it be Hunter's goal to win the Cup next season? That's up to Washington owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee. But Hunter will have a say in it, too. He's in a unique position for a coach. He doesn't need to keep this job. He can happily head back to the Knights, who just won the OHL championship on Friday and head to the Memorial Cup next weekend.
But there's unfinished business in Washington, and he may just be the one who can finally push the long-underachieving Capitals over the top. If he still wants the job, that is.
"Oh yeah," Hunter said when asked if he enjoyed the experience behind the bench. "Coaching is the next best thing to playing. To be involved in the Stanley Cup playoffs, it's a privilege to try to take a run at it again."
Boudreau landed on his feet in Anaheim and was signed to a two-year extension by the Ducks on Thursday. The Capitals would be wise to convince Hunter to stay at least that long.
Photo via Flickr/clydeorama
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