OTTAWA, CANADA - DECEMBER 7: Head coach Dale Hunter of the Washington Capitals looks on from the bench during an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place on December 7, 2011 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images)
On the surface, everything's coming up roses for Dale Hunter and the Capitals after a 3-2 victory in game two of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, but how long will his stifling treatment of the team's highly paid stars continue to work?
At first glance, the Washington Capitals' series-tying 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers makes it look like they are finally finding a balance under Dale Hunter. The team's fourth line continues to contribute, particularly with the spectacular play of Joel Ward to set up the opening goal. Their defense continues to frustrate the Rangers' attempts to set the tempo of the game. Braden Holtby responded with a strong effort, and best of all, two of his star players connected to create the game-winning goal thanks to Nicklas Backstrom's setup for a vintage Alex Ovechkin one-timer.
The truth, however, may be a little more complex.
While Hunter's management of the game did pay off, one wonders what the lasting relationship between himself and the team may end up being. Mike Green, the clear "weak link" of the defense in Game 1, still appeared somewhat suspect, and his 18 minutes of ice time were generously boosted with power play time. Had the Rangers not been kind enough to take two third-period minors, it's entirely possible that Green would have finished the night tied with Roman Hamrlik for the lowest ice time among Washington blueliners.
Meanwhile, Hunter's forward assignments seem like a slowly-building source of tension between the interim head coach and some of the highest paid players in the NHL.
Despite scoring the game-winning goal and leading the Capitals in postseason scoring, Ovechkin saw the ice for just 13:36 Monday, including three minutes of power play time. His third-period goal was a reminder of the laser-edged brilliance that has made him one of the NHL's most promoted stars. Receiving the feed, the great eight wound up and fired a wrist shot that almost seemed to move faster than the camera could track, and as the goal light went on, the crowd at MSG was treated to a celebration that seemed more like the goofy, constantly enthusiastic 22-year-old "Ovie", not the increasingly burdened and humorless captain of recent months.
Though the Russian sniper has previously stated that he'd happily take scoring less goals in exchange for a championship, he seemed increasingly restless as the third period went on without taking a shift. By the final minutes, one could be forgiven for expecting to see him cursing at another coach from the bench.
Almost as confusing is the 16 minutes for Backstrom, who is just behind Ovechkin with five points in eight games and has won almost 53 percent of his draws in the faceoff circle. This is a marked drop from his normal ~19+ minutes. Alexander Semin, who is tied for the team's postseason goal scoring lead? Twelve minutes, 27 seconds.
In fact, most of the normal "top six" for the Capitals averaged under 18 minutes with the exception of Troy Brouwer. Even "bonus" producers like Jason Chimera, who delivered a career-high 39 points this season along with his three goals so far in the playoffs, logged just 13:05 Monday.
Meanwhile, Hunter continues to lean on Matt Hendricks, Marcus Johansson and Jay Beagle. Beagle, in fact, saw more ice time than any other Washington forward (19:58), and was only beaten out for overall TOI by John Carlson and Karl Alzner. So far, the former AHL champion has rewarded his coach with one goal, one assist (that owed more to the skates of Ryan McDonagh than any of the Capitals), four PIMs and 13 shots over nine games.
While it's entirely possible that Hunter could "let the dogs run" a bit more once the series shifts back to the Verizon Center on Wednesday, how long will his players continue the good soldier act before the frustration boils over -- particularly if the Rangers reclaim their lead in the series?
If winning makes everything better, losing could end with a locker room revolt -- particularly if the team suffers a second-round exit for the third time in the past four seasons.