Washington Capitals Coach Dale Hunter isn't mentioned among the top bench bosses remaining in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Mostly because it's his first rodeo, and hasn't shown he's got the goods to win an NHL playoff round.
Yet, at least.
But also because he's faced some heat during this time with the Capitals, to the point where he captured the ignominious "worst coach" accolade in our Worst Awards. The scrutiny continued in the playoffs vs. the Boston Bruins, particularly his allocation of ice time. From Scott Burnside of ESPN:
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.
Factor in the use of Mike Knuble here and in the regular season, and the defensive shells the Capitals have entered late in games, and you have a lot of red meat tossed to ravenous critics.
But with a victory in Game 7, on his terms, Dale Hunter might silence many of them.
Hunter's made some bold moves in this series; none bolder than his use of role players over star players late in games, which is part of what chased Bruce Boudreau out of town.
"At the end of the game there, you've got your shot-blockers out there and you want your best players blocking shots," Hunter said. "But your offensive guys, you don't want them breaking a foot, either. [Jay Beagle] has got the knack. You see at the end of the game, he slid at the right time? It takes timing, and [Ovechkin] at the end of the game, we were down the other night a goal, he was the guy we had to go to."
The Capitals are third in the playoffs in blocked shots (121), blocking at a higher clip (20.2 per game) than in the regular season (15.9 per game, spanning Boudreau and Hunter).
Hunter's also engaged in some playoff politics, accusing the Bruins of headhunting Nicklas Backstrom before Game 4 — for which Backstrom was suspended — leading to muted physical performance in that loss for the Bruins. (That the Penguins and Flyers had descended into Thunderdome also helped.)
His decisions haven't always been popular, and his system tends to play right into the Bruins' hands as a team that can win close games.
But if the Capitals win Game 7, Hunter wins some level of validation that he figured out how to turn the Washington Capitals into a playoff team.
Chuck Gormley of CSN Washington thinks, win or lose, Hunter needs to return next season:
He's made them believe in playing the right way with a system that wins in the playoffs. He's persuaded his players — most notably his star players — to check their egos at the door and that teams win in the postseason by having well-defined roles. And, quite frankly, the Capitals have made too much progress under Hunter for him to walk away now.
To that end, some interesting insight from Mike Knuble:
"Bruce was here 20 games and Dale's been here 60, and it's taken every bit of that to get everybody to buy in," Knuble said. "Some guys, the first day they're drinking the Kool-Aid. Other guys, it takes a couple of months to get them to do it.
"It's an interesting challenge to change tendencies and to change habits. The offensive guys, they've been offensive their whole life. Since they could wipe their noses, they've been out there scoring goals. It's kind of hard to get them all to think a little bit differently, because it's what's gotten you here."
Granted, much like Boudreau with Semyon Varlamov a few years back, Hunter has benefited from lights-out play from a rookie goalie.
But success in the playoffs can change the conversation about a coach. A coach who looks like he's worn out his welcome one spring can be fitted for a Stanley Cup ring one year later. But enough about Claude Julien …
Bruins vs. Capitals Game 7: Who do you like?