That is an entirely new concept in the current Caps era, when too many have been coddled or simply accepted as they are. Few new coaches would have any prayer of changing a locker room as decisively as Hunter has. In fact, he looked like a dismal mismatch with his players with as little as three weeks left in the regular season.
But Hunter hung tough and, perhaps, got lucky, too. How many shots rang off the pipes late in the year or in the first round of the playoffs against the Bruins that could have, if they had been one inch different, ended the Caps’ season and Hunter’s gamble? However, in a reversal of traditional Caps karma, the playoffs were reached and the first round won with each success in a close, low-scoring game, adding to the conclusion that Hunter’s way could work.
“We had a tough season,” said McPhee, referring to lengthy injuries to Backstrom and Green, as well as low scoring by Ovechkin until the final month. “They really had to grind it out at the end. That helped get them ready.
“Becoming a mature hockey team is a process. They’ve matured. Now they focus on only one game, the next one,” McPhee said. “That’s what’s gotten good.”
And everybody has bought into the program, including the Great Eight, who, as recently as a couple of years ago symbolized, in some ways, professional immaturity? “Ovi is doing great,” McPhee said.
Once a team believes that its collective narrative has changed, then its sense of its own history — granted, in the Caps’ case a very recent and still sparse history — can be reinforcing, not eroding.
“After that long game the other night we were kind of tired but we came in and found a way to win,” said Backstrom, proving again that a key difference in sports between blinding genius and cliche is whether you win.
Game 4 had one potential controversy — whether Ovechkin should be disciplined by the NHL for a questionable high hit on the Rangers’ Dan Girardi.
Girardi wasn’t hurt and Ovechkin will probably skate. But this will be a nice litmus test for how the Caps’ luck is really running this postseason. The top seed in the Western Conference is already out and the No. 2 is down three games to none while the Caps have taken care of the No. 2 Bruins in the East.
Sound familiar? Every couple of seasons it seems that the postseason breaks just perfectly to give somebody a tough but manageable path to the Stanley Cup. Could it be the Caps this time? Don’t say it to McPhee or your health could be in danger. “We’re not thinking is those terms at all,” he said. “We have one game — Monday night in the Garden. That’s it.”
How focused, how mature. And how unlike the Caps.
But you can bet the Caps feel the possibility, remote as it still is.
“Maybe. It could play out like that,” said Mike Green, who scored the game-winner in the third period on a scalding slap shot through the five hole from the top of the right circle. “We’re very comfortable, to be honest. We know what it takes to win under Dale’s system. It works.”
Especially if nobody cares which 20 men dress or how many minutes they get or how many times they have to throw themselves in front of a sizzling Rangers shot. On Saturday, the Caps swamped the Rangers in their own favorite unselfishness statistic — blocked shots, 26-7, led by seldom-heralded Jeff Schultz with nine.
“Nine!” Hunter said approvingly. “That’s good. The guys are committed.”
From Ovechkin (13th on the team in minutes played) down to the last man, it seems that, at long last, the Caps know that they better be.
For Thomas Boswell previous columns, visit washingtonpost.