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Is Dale Hunter's tough love what the Caps needed?

Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter, center, talks with Alex Ovechkin during the first period against the St. Louis Blues, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011, in Washington.

Nick Wass/Nick Wass/AP

What a peculiar situation Dale Hunter and the Washington Capitals find themselves in these days.

The coach doesn't have a contract beyond the end of these playoffs, and there hasn't really been any indication from management that he's going to get one.

This despite the fact they enter Monday's Game 2 as one of only eight teams still alive in these playoffs.

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Hunter is one of the beloved faces of the Caps franchise, a former captain who has played more NHL games in Washington colours than all but Calle Johansson, Peter Bondra and Kelly Miller.

So when GM George McPhee came calling for a favour back in late November, Hunter jumped at the chance despite the lack of guarantees he'd be onboard for the long haul.

Not that he needed them.

What's been interesting about this marriage is that Hunter was perfectly happy back in London with his wildly successful junior franchise.

He and brother, Mark, the Knights head coach and GM, have made a relative fortune from the OHL team since buying it 12 years ago, and there will always be a safe landing spot back there should his return to the Caps not work out.

For much of the year, that's how it appeared things would go down.

Under Hunter, Washington didn't exactly light the league on fire, as one of the highest scoring teams the past few seasons laboured to adjust to a much more defensive style. The Caps went a wholly mediocre 20-19-5 in its first 44 games under the new coach into early March and were in ninth in the East with only a month to go.

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A 10-4-2 finish, however, put them up into seventh, with a first round date with the defending champion Boston Bruins that wasn't solved until Joel Ward's overtime winner in Game 7 last week.

Suddenly the man behind the bench, who very much looked to be heading back home had the Caps been eliminated that night, is coaching another day as the underdog.

Hunter's interim status and junior hockey safety net has allowed him an uncommon level of control over the team, as he can bench stars like Alex Ovechkin (who incredibly had just 65 points this season) and Alex Semin without worrying where his next paycheck is coming from.

Maybe that's what this team needed?

After all, the approach has worked pretty well, even if it has a bit over-reliant on rookie Braden Holtby stopping so many pucks. The Caps are second to only the New York Rangers in blocked shots and have gotten goals from 12 different scorers in eight games rather than looking to their top three or four players.

Brooks Laich has as many points as Ovechkin. Jason Chimera has as many as Semin.

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And both the big stars have been benched at key times in games.

That hasn't mattered so far, although maybe it will against a Rangers team that found a way in Game 1 to get better chances than the Bruins did in Round 1. For now, however, this series looks like it has the makings of another long one.

Not bad for a team that looked like it was going nowhere up until about six weeks ago.

(Speaking of which, Tyler Dellow has done some statistical analysis of Ovechkin's decline that provides insight into his regression. Perhaps Hunter not relying on him to play huge minutes reflects how he's played more than anything?)

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About the Author
Hockey Reporter

James joined The Globe as an editor and reporter in the sports department in 2005 and now covers the NHL and the Toronto Maple Leafs. More

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