by Kevin Klein
It won’t be easy for a casual, or a new Caps fan to identify the effect that Dale Hunter has had on his team four games into his tenure. He is, afterall, only 1-3 in those four games. Hardly impressive, and not much of an improvement from the tail end of the Boudreau era. But even if you’ve only been watching Capitals hockey since their playoff run in 2007, you’ve since learned that games in December, come April, are long forgotten.
Which brings me to my point: despite three losses in four games, Dale Hunter has poured some gas into a tank that was empty, unable to run off of Boudreau’s fumes, potent though they may have been. Don’t look now, but Florida is atop the (soon-to-be-defunct) Southeast division, Pittsburgh is on their way to another dominant regular season, and the Blues are playing the best hockey St. Louis has seen in years. For those of who read more than you watch, these are the three teams Hunter’s Capitals have fallen to.
But in each of these games, if you look closely, there’s something promising to hold onto, embedded deep within the disappointment of another loss. Against Pittsburgh and St. Louis it was the defense, the hustle, the budding cohesiveness which was utterly lacking in the month and a half following a magical start to the season. But still the offense was lacking.
Fast forward through Dale Hunter’s first win, a heartwarming affair full of irony and symbolism and whathaveits, and we arrive in the second period of a game against division “rival” Florida Panthers, NHL laughing stock of the decade, down 5-1. Yep, that’s right. Five goals against in half a game, against a team we’ve dominated since we started wearing red. It was all too familiar a scenario for the 2011-2012 Capitals. An early goal given up, an utter collapse shortly thereafter, a barrage of incensed fans and bloggers clogging the mediawaves in the hours to come.
But the Capitals of today did not tuck their tails between their legs and meekly succumb to defeat like the Capitals of yesterweek. They fought resiliently, mustering 3 goals in the final 19:20, while allowing none. While this effort came too late, and fell short, it was still a flare, a spark, a sign of fight that the team didn’t exhibit in its waning weeks under Boudreau. Tonight, maybe 5-4 is but a loss in a game during which the boys didn’t show up. But in a few months, looking back, the third period of the December 5th Panthers game could be a hindsight beacon of things that would be to come.
Believe it or not, it takes time to implement a system— to unlearn and learn and perform at a professional level. Those who expected Hunter to put on a red tie, tell his guys to have a peek at his jersey hanging in the rafters, and then reel off five consecutive wins, are undoubtedly disappointed. But unrealistic expectation breeds disappointment. Merge your experiences from the past with your thoughts of the future, padawan. How often has this Capitals team breezed through the regular season, nary a hitch to be found, only to be swiftly booted from the playoffs by a more physical, more defensively-sound team? The #1 seed hasn’t helped the Capitals’ playoff success in the past two seasons, so perhaps its time to shift our priorities as spectators?
While regular season losing streaks and stretches of poor play are frustrating, and elicit the output of much ire, often 140 characters at a time, it’s not time to throw the towel in yet. The best teams grow as the season goes on. They grow as a team, they grow as a unit. With growth comes pain. Caps’ nation is caught in its agonizing throes now, but better to feel this way in December than April, no?
In the 82-game NHL regular season, even good teams are susceptible to turning in duds. Monday night’s game against the Panthers, was the Caps first dud under the Hunter regime, but Caps’ fans shouldn’t let it leave the same sour bile in their mouths as previous disappointing defeats. The Caps are playing Dale Hunter hockey: they’re hitting everything that moves, locking down the neutral zone, backchecking like demons, and throwing down fisticuffs just because they feel like it. When Hunter stepped behind the bench everyone speculated about these things, their thoughts flooded with memories of a grisly, scar-faced #32 streaking up and down the ice. But it was hard to imagine that style of play with Washington’s current cast of characters.
Lo and behold, the Hunter ideology has been preached, and has begun to manifest. For over a year now— ever since the 2009 President’s Trophy squad fell on their face— Caps faithful have preached the need for grit and snarl. Well now we’re getting it. It’s being beaten into the Caps, like a sledgehammer over a red-hot blade on a forge. So what are a few losses in exchange? A blip, a few handfuls of sand held up next to a beach. Hunter cannot be held accountable for the team’s failing before his arrival. He is 1-3, with signs of promise. It is the weeks of poor play prior to Hunter’s arrival which sparks our collective discontent, our chicken-little-the-sky-is-falling mien. It is Dale Hunter’s job to right the ship that Bruce Boudreau led off course, his workers fallen asleep at the helm, perhaps a finger too much whiskey. It is not his job to make up for the shortcomings which beat the path to Bruce’s exit. Bruce is the past, Hunter is the future, and the distinction needs to be made.
All these things said, hurry up and get us a few more W’s, Dale— we’re running out of silver linings.
Note: the wonderful feature image for this article was snapped by pucksandbooks over at On Frozen Blog
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