The Caps learned to play interim coach Dale Hunter’s style, becoming aggressive back-checkers and fearless shot-blockers through 14 postseason games.
They also showed heart, bouncing back from an overtime loss in Game 6 of the first round against Boston to win Game 7. They managed to win Games 4 and 6 against the Rangers, after devastating overtime losses in Game 3 and 5.
Perhaps the most important development is they appear to have found a goaltender in Braden Holtby, who has just the kind of cockiness you need playing a position where moments of humiliation are inevitable. Most important, his teammates clearly felt confident playing in front of him.
Three cheers for Holtzy.
Now let’s peel away from the lovely season-ending rhetoric and deal with what needs to happen in the offseason if the Capitals want to finally be in the hockey conversation beyond mid-May.
First, they need to find a coach. Hunter is gone, heading back to London, Ontario, to be a wealthy junior hockey coach/owner. His brief coaching tenure here was an experiment — for him and the team. He wanted to see if he would enjoy coaching in the National Hockey League; the team wanted to see if his pugnacious approach would work at this level.
Ultimately, the reviews were mixed. The Caps were 30-23-7 in the regular season after Hunter took over and sneaked into the playoffs the last week of the season. They were 7-7 in the playoffs, surprising the Bruins and playing the Rangers to the wire.
The final result, the one that matters, wasn’t any different than the results under Bruce Boudreau — except less fun. The dazzling, high-wire Caps who won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2010 under a coach who had a deprecating sense of humor and a glint in his eyes, were replaced by a grinding, muck-it-up team that didn’t suffer the same lows but rarely reached the same highs.
Hunter’s decision to leave came as a surprise to no one who has spent time around the team. General Manager George McPhee would have been happy to have him back — “I like the accountability he’s brought,” McPhee said — but couldn’t have been stunned or even that disappointed that Hunter elected not to return.
That’s because the notion that Hunter had implemented sort of magic elixir of a system is a myth. Boudreau was in the process of changing the Capitals’ approach when he was fired for essentially one reason: Alex Ovechkin didn’t want to play for him anymore because — ironically — Boudreau began insisting on accountability from everyone, including his superstar.
Hunter was a different voice saying many of the same things — to the team in general and to Ovechkin in specific. Slowly, they responded, which made them a lot like the four teams that are still playing. All play defense. All are blessed with solid goaltending. None are coached by Hunter, yet one of them will win the Stanley Cup.