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Washington Capitals eliminated in Game 7; was Dale Hunter Hockey a success?

Greg Wyshynski
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It wasn't so much what Alex Ovechkin said after the Washington Capitals' Game 7 loss to the New York Rangers, but what he was wearing: His full uniform, in his dressing room stall, answering questions about the end of their improbable playoff run. When the reporters hit the room, Ovechkin nearly always has his jersey off. Not this time.

"It's a terrible feeling right now. What can I say? We did our best," he said after the 2-1 loss at MSG on Saturday night. "It's hard."

He continued to sit in his full uniform for roughly five minutes after the media scrum ended — dejected and frustrated at falling short of the conference final yet again.

Yet for the Capitals, it was a promising postseason in many ways. Braden Holtby, the rookie goalie tabbed by many to be the eventual starter for the franchise, proved ahead of schedule in posting a 1.95 GAA and a .935 save percentage, never losing consecutive games in the playoffs. The team in front of him showed a commitment to systematic defense that it hadn't exhibited in previous postseasons, participating in one-goal games in 13 of their 14 contests.

Coach Dale Hunter, who somehow found a way to get these players to sacrifice both their bodies and their ice time for the betterment of the team, felt validated after Game 7.

"It's the right way to play, to win," he said. Next year we'll … you know, you can … you know, start off and that's your goal. To win."

"We" to "you" was an interesting transition. Will there be a next year for Hunter?

"It's not the time right now," said Hunter, when asked about his future.

He coached the Capitals on a 1-year contract and with little regard for locker room politics, leading some to believe he'd return to the OHL London Knights win or lose. But management and his players — at least publicly — want him to return.

What did Hunter discover about this team during the last several weeks?

"A lot of character in that room," he said. "Character's a big word. Means a lot. You see how we play, the sacrifice they have to make, and in that room they did it. They played the type of hockey you have to play to win."

Whatever his future with the team, it could be argued that this Capitals roster needed Dale Hunter, and they're better for him having coached them this season.

It was the first time they all bought into a team defensive concept, and the results for players like Karl Alzner, John Carlson and Jeff Schultz on defense, as well as Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom were impressive. When Bruce Boudreau asked for that commitment, he received it in the short-term and then saw it disappear when adversity hit.

It was the first time this group worried less about the stat sheet — who scored the goals and who had the ice time — than with the win column in the postseason.

Ilya Kovalchuk needed Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey to transform him into a more complete player. Maybe the rewiring sticks and maybe it doesn't, but Ovechkin was making plays on the defensive end and playing with intensity in the offensive zone with a balance of power he's never shown before. Last season, his lack of ice time or absence in late game situations could have been a political cherry bomb for his head coach. Instead, Ovechkin appeared to reach a new, more complex level as a player.

Hunter's greatest contribution wasn't tactical — more on that in a moment — but psychological. To a man, the Capitals said that his coaching staff's serene, measured and unflinching approach to the playoffs kept their own emotions in check. There was no panic from the Capitals. There was no moment in which the string was pulled and the sweater unraveled. They achieved an emotional maturity that defied their history as the playoffs' constant disappointers. It was a learning experience.

That all said: The argument can be made the Dale Hunter Hockey, tactically, can't sustain a team's success in the playoffs.

"Two good teams battling each other? What can you say?" said Hunter. "We didn't move the puck well. They put a lot of pressure on us, and we couldn't set it up."

Which is to say that you live by the coin-flip, you die by the coin-flip. In a postseason of one-goal games, one mistake can mean defeat. The Capitals allowed an early goal, and then botched a line change to help create the Rangers' second tally. This occurred on a night in which the Rangers weren't going to allow an inch to the Caps — intercepting passes, clearing room in front of Henrik Lundqvist and smothering Ovechkin. When shots got through, Lundqvist was there, making key saves on Backstrom, Alex Semin and Troy Brouwer.

"They did a good job, collapsing low. Just like we did," said Brooks Laich.

Dale Hunter Hockey eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champions in Round 1. The Rangers were, in the end, too similar in style for the Capitals' defense to ultimately thrive; and, in the end, their key players (Brad Richards, Lundqvist) and home ice proved to be the difference.

But in this oddest of odd years for the Capitals — the summer additions, the high expectations, the underwhelming play, Bruce Boudreau's firing, Dale Hunter's lack of impact and then sudden impact in the playoffs — the end result was an appearance in Game 7 of the conference semifinal. It's not where it should have ended based on preseason aspirations, but it's an achievement given what they've become.

Now begins an intriguing offseason, beginning with Dale Hunter Hockey's namesake.

"Coaching's the next best thing to playing," said Hunter after Game 7. "It's a privilege to try and take a run at it again."

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