There were times the past few months he probably hated it here after taking over for Bruce Boudreau, who was let go in November after almost five seasons. Maybe Hunter wondered why in the world he had left the simplicity of a thriving junior team in much-quieter and less-critical London, Ontario, where, as the Capitals’ Troy Brouwer said, “He’s dealing with 16- and 17-year-olds with no egos, which is a lot easier than dealing with all he’s got to put up with in the NHL.”
But not Wednesday night, not after the way the Capitals back-checked and took care of the puck the way “Hunts” always wanted. Not the way the highest-paid players stopped vulcanized rubber pucks with their bruised bodies. It made Hunter, a man of spare words with the countenance of and slight resemblance to Boris Yeltsin, roil with emotion.
“They’re character guys, that’s what it is,” he said, a smile forming after the Capitals forced a Game 7 of their Stanley Cup conference semifinal series with the Rangers on Saturday in New York. “More than anything else, they want to win. They want to win because of their character. They put the team ahead of their personal goals.”
He was asked whether he now likes this team, the one that for several months during the regular season seemed to have no identity and is now one victory away from Washington’s first Eastern Conference finals appearance in 14 years.
“I love these guys,” Hunter said. “They’ve had everything thrown at them. But they keep blocking shots. Doin’ the little things, you know? [Getting hit by a puck] hurts. You know, I’ve been through it. And I know it does. But the sacrifices they’re making. . . . The word character is a good word for this group in there.”
The coach signed through only this season won’t address his job status until after the Capitals’ playoff run is done, he said. But for the first time, Hunter appears to be enjoying life as coach of the Capitals. He no longer feels like the guy thought by many — including some in his own locker room — to be a short-term fix.
That guy now looks like he might want to stay.
And a bigger shocker: A month after the Capitals’ playoff hopes were on the brink, everyone actually wants him to come back.
That group includes me, who on March 28 wrote that Hunter’s hiring made “no sense,” that he was the wrong coach after Boudreau. The column’s closing line read: “Unless Hunter can work some magic we haven’t seen in these last five games, it’s time for the Capitals to cut their losses and move on.” I was wrong. The season needed to play out first.