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.
That said, it’s worth noting that whether or not they move on to face the New Jersey Devils for a right to play for the Stanley Cup, in some ways the Capitals are only meeting the expectations placed upon them before the season began, when many picked them to win it all. Using that logic, they simply are where they should be at this stage of the playoffs.
But strangely, this team feels more equipped to make that run than others of recent vintage that flamed out in Washington. Credit for that goes to Hunter, and the players who bought into his system.
In hindsight, the somnambulant man behind the bench who never seems to get excited over anything can no longer be viewed as an emotionless, uninspiring leader who, if you walked up to him and told him his pants are on fire, might respond: “That’s hockey. We’ll battle.”
Hunter’s inner and outward calm has helped keep the Capitals’ ship upright during the major storms of this postseason; in the Rangers series, that includes a triple-overtime loss in Game 3 and a crushing overtime loss in Game 5. Indeed, this Capitals team has become Hunter, unfazed by it all.
The job facing General Manager George McPhee is to sell Hunter on staying. The team’s coach is already leading a locker room full of converted souls.
“Absolutely,” Nicklas Backstrom said Wednesday night when asked if he wanted Hunter to return. “I don’t see another guy coming in. I would like to see him back here. Hopefully he enjoys life here, too, and he likes to be here.”
Said Matt Hendricks: “He’s brought a new culture to us. When you start to talk about blocking shots and winning faceoffs continually and it happens, it starts to build pride in the room for guys.”
Jason Chimera, noting skilled stars Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin blocking shots, added: “When you see guys diving in front of pucks, you know things have changed. If he returns, that would be good for us.”
Hunter might never be as chatty as Boudreau. But that’s okay, Karl Alzner said.
“He doesn’t waste any words,” Alzner said. “I bet you he’s spoken probably less words than I have and he’s been alive twice as long as me.”
I asked Hunter if he had heard from any of the players who criticized his lack of communication or his decisions earlier this season. “I haven’t had conversations, but I feel like they have shown me with their play,” he said. “They showed me they are winners.”