- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

As homecomings go, Dale Hunter’s debut as the Washington Capitals‘ coach was an understated affair. There was no parade down F Street by fans wearing Hunter’s throwback No. 32 jersey. There was no turn-away crowd at Verizon Center, either. It was, after all, a Tuesday night, and the out-of-conference/out-of-mind St. Louis Blues were in town.

And perhaps that’s as it should be. Hunter isn’t going to sprinkle magic dust on the Caps and make all their problems — the ones that put Bruce Boudreau on the unemployment line — disappear. He’s a farm boy from Ontario, not a prestidigitator named Merlin. As Mike Knuble puts it, “I’ve been through this [coaching-change business] three or four times. Sometimes there’s a rebound, and you start going in a different direction. But it’s not like he’s going to come in and change everything. At least, not right away.”

So the Hunter Era began, 23 games into the season, with a 2-1 loss that was neither particularly high-energy nor particularly physical — two things Dale was renowned for as a player. No, the Capitals didn’t look much like a Dale Hunter team at all … or a Boudreau team, for that matter. They looked, if anything, a little on edge, a little unsure of themselves — caught between two coaches and wondering what’s going to happen under the new one. Who will stay and who will go? Who will rise in the pecking order and who will fall?


The hesitancy against the Blues enabled the visitors to put a fair amount of pressure (in the form of 30 shots) on Tomas Vokoun — more heat, certainly, than the Capitals (19) put on Jaroslav Halak, their old nemesis from the Montreal playoff series two years ago. Over time, the Caps should settle into Hunter’s system, but right now, “Everybody doesn’t want to make a mistake,” John Carlson said.

This is only natural, of course. With their indifferent play, the Capitals have caused a popular coach to be fired, and now they have to deal with the consequences — first and foremost the uncertainty that always comes with change. Good. They need to have their world rocked a little. They’ve been playing for too long as if their talent alone would carry them through, as if, well, if they didn’t get a stick on this puck, they’d get it on the next one. Don’t expect that to continue much longer, not with Hunter standing, arms folded, behind the bench. Dale was never one for dillying, to say nothing of dallying.

It’s funny. Often, when a team reaches into its alumni association for a coach, it’s trying to bring back the glory days. But the Caps don’t really have any glory days. In fact, these are supposed to be the glory days, the days of The Great 8, Alex Ovechkin. Hunter merely represents the closest the franchise has come to glory — the trips to the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals and the ‘90 conference finals, both of which ended in anticlimactic sweeps.

In terms of personality, he couldn’t be much different from his predecessor. Boudreau was like a favorite uncle — though he carried a bigger stick this season in an attempt to make the players more “accountable” for their mistakes. Hunter is like an uncle, too, but the wild-and-crazy kind, the kind who greets Trick-or-Treaters at the door in a gorilla outfit. You love him, but you also don’t dare turn your back on him.

Dennis Wideman, who played on Dale’s Junior A team, the London Knights, says, “He’s a guy you respect so much, you don’t want to let him down… . But when it comes time to lay the hammer down, I’ll sure he will.”

Brooks Laich is convinced that, eventually, “the team is going to take on Dale’s kinda in-your-face identity.” Such feistiness was only occasionally in evidence Tuesday night, though — when Troy Brouwer, for instance, took a stick to the face of former Capital Jason Arnott in the second period (resulting in a double minor and a bit of blood) or when Matt Hendricks dropped the gloves with Scott Nichol early in the third.

By then a pair of defensive lapses had put the Caps down a goal, and they couldn’t come up with the equalizer — though they did manage to step up the attack in the closing minutes. Hunter professed to be satisfied with the effort if not the final result. His players, he said, “got better as the game went on” of transitioning from offense to defense, an area they’ve been criminally negligent in lately.

“We didn’t give up odd-man rushes tonight. There was no two-on-ones, three-on-twos — stuff like that… . But I want them to get better and better after every practice. By watching them live now, we’ve got some stuff to work on.”

So Dale Hunter returned to Verizon Center on Tuesday night, but he didn’t return, as his many admirers had hoped, in triumph. The slumping club he inherited from Boudreau — now stuck in a 3-8-1 rut — kept right on struggling, raising the very real possibility that there will be no quick fix for this team, no easy answers.

“He’s learning as well as we are, I think,” Hendricks said. “Learning what buttons make us work.”

Rest assured Hunter will push those buttons — every last one, maybe even a few the Capitals didn’t realize they had. It’s what a coach does. And Dale Hunter, as startling as it still seems, is the coach of the Caps now.