‘Dale Hunter Hockey’ Finally Comes To Fruition

KOL co-founder Jack Anderson has returned (for now), sharing his thoughts on the Washington Capitals’ 4-3 series victory over the Boston Bruins.

In a series that came down to the slimmest of margins, the Washington Capitals used a new formula to pull off an upset of stunning proportions over the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins

Instead of relying on a handful of big-name players to carry them, the Caps went toe-to-toe with the big, bad Bruins in the exact fashion Dale Hunter had envisioned. They went to battle as a team – each man playing their part to perfection.

No series had ever seen all seven games each decided by a goal until now. Not until Joel Ward jammed home a backhander did anyone in Boston or Washington stop sweating. It was two weeks of neck-and-neck hockey Hunter style.

There were so many unlikely heroes. No one expected Braden Holtby to steal a game let alone a series, but he posted a .940 save percentage in the absence of Washington’s top two netminders. Ward hadn’t scored on a goalie since January 7 and Mike Knuble had been a healthy scratch for 10 regular season and four playoff games.

John Carlson – much-maligned for his regular season struggles – transformed back into Karl Alzner’s shutdown sidekick. Roman Hamrlik – seemingly on his way out before the NHL trade deadline – mended fences with Hunter and played rugged minutes as the team’s most experienced defenseman.

It’s the foot soldiers…you wins series with them,” Hunter said. “Through the whole series they came through bigtime.”

And of course who can forget Alex Ovechkin? The world-class winger led his team in scoring, but it was his maturity both on the ice and in the locker room that made for a surprising X-factor. The buzz around Ovechkin centered on his lack of ice time, but he deflected the chatter with a renewed effort in all three zones and a team-first message to reporters.

Ice time doesn’t matter. Winning does.

The evidence for that came just seconds after Ward’s winner found the back of the net. Ovechkin leapt off the bench and beat Knuble – who was on already on the ice – to the boards to celebrate with Ward.

“I can’t say what I’m feeling right now,” said Ovechkin.

This series will go a long way towards furthering his legacy, but without contributions from the full cast of characters it would have never occurred.

After being in and out of the lineup down the stretch, Ward and Knuble saved their best for last.

“I thought I might have lost a little bit of respect of my own teammates from just being on the outside so much,” Ward said. “When you’re on the outside a little bit it’s definitely tough. For us to get back in the lineup and keep working – you know, we were excited just to be part of it.”

The spotlight was reserved for Ward Wednesday night, but if not for Karl Alzner’s game-saving denial of Patrice Bergeron on the doorstep minutes beforehand, he would have retained the label as a $3 million-dollar free agent bust.

Yet, Alzner wasn’t the only one providing an impact. Holtby also showcased his talents, outdueling reigning Conn Smythe and Vezina trophy winner Tim Thomas. The usual suspects like Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom had their moments, but the Capitals won because of Hunter’s lasting impression on a franchise in need of a makeover.

Hunter won’t win any awards for the job he’s done this year with the Caps, but somehow he got them to believe in his system overnight and it’s resulted in the most dangerous hockey team this town has seen in a long time. His steadfast approach has now been proven successful while before it only appeared to drive a wedge between him and some of the veteran players he scratched throughout the season.

But Hunter never sat a player down out of spite. He repeatedly told reporters his tinkering was about promoting competition and accountability. Play well and you’ll play more was the mantra.

That’s why Jay Beagle saw the ice in nearly every key faceoff situation. He earned Hunter’s trust as a defensive specialist after being nothing more than a role-playing winger recovering from a concussion under Bruce Boudreau.

It’s also why players like Ward, Knuble and Hamrlik re-claimed spots on the active roster. They didn’t let a troubling regular season turn into a short-lived stay in the playoffs. Instead they made the most of their respective hardships and after waiting their turn, seized the moment.

“When you win big games like this, it’s because they sacrifice and they did through the whole series,” Hunter said.

Now the first-year coach has to demonstrate the Caps are more than a flash in the pan. The NHL has taken notice and the team won’t fly under the radar anymore. It’s up to Hunter to make the necessary adjustments to match up with the Caps next opponent and to keep them grounded in reality.

And the reality is there’s 12 more wins to go.

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Filed under 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Capitals, Opinion, Recap

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