Who knows exactly how Hunter, hired in the middle of what seemed like a lost season, has broken the star syndrome that’s cursed the Caps in the playoffs for years, but he’s done it.
High character, in the hockey sense of physical toughness and psychological stability under pressure, can be identified in someone like Hunter, but you never know if those qualities can be transmitted. Right now, the team that was so battered for months is 100 percent healthy, devoted to Hunter’s defensive selfless style and downright go-for-the-Cup dangerous.
But the Caps are still only dead even with the No. 1-seeded Rangers after a 3-2 victory at Verizon Center in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series on Saturday. Nonetheless, momentum took a turn as the team which lost agonizingly in triple overtime on Wednesday — such a doomed Caps moment — showed the resiliency to come back with an often dominating effort to even the series.
This matchup, this whole postseason, in fact, has a powerful sense of deja vu; the Caps have been here before recently, but always in the opposite role as the regular season power that gets upset in the spring.
Now, they get to see how those other guys got to feel, always dancing in their Phone Booth after an upset win.
“Yes, there’s something to it. I don’t think you have as much pressure” as the underdog, said Nicklas Backstrom, who scored the Caps’ second goal. “I think it is good for us. We like that.”
Then, unsolicited, Backstrom added: “The last two weeks of the regular season felt like the playoffs with every game so important. That helped get us ready for games like this. There’s a different mentality now. Everybody is buying in and working together.”
Among the Young Guns of five seasons ago, perhaps Backstrom always bought into whatever was asked. But others didn’t. The tip of the spear in changing the Caps’ culture was Hunter’s willingness and ability to redefine Alex Ovechkin’s role, cutting his playing time significantly, especially when more defense was required.
Just as important, Ovechkin respected Hunter enough, or valued his teammates or wanted to change his playoff-failure reputation so much — or all of it together — that he has accepted what many stars in other sports, and some in hockey, would consider grave disrespect for a two-time MVP.
Imagine how Kobe or LeBron or so many others in various games would respond to having their playing time reduced by a full third from their glory years, as Ovechkin’s was during Saturday’s win. Ovechkin’s response: He scored the first goal of the game on a slap shot that ripped off the tip of the glove of sainted Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist