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Dale Hunter Leads Washington Capitals To Brink Of Another Upset

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Dale Hunter's still the butt of jokes in the hockey world, but he deserves more credit than he's received for the Capitals' success in these playoffs.

March 27, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter watches from behind the bench against the Buffalo Sabres in the second period at Verizon Center. The Sabres won 5-1. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE
March 27, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Capitals head coach Dale Hunter watches from behind the bench against the Buffalo Sabres in the second period at Verizon Center. The Sabres won 5-1. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-US PRESSWIRE

UPDATE: Dale Hunter has stepped down as head coach in Washington.

He's been labeled a coach in over his head.

Every time something has gone wrong in a Washington Capitals playoff game, it seems the spotlight is shining on him.

He hasn't changed his suit since the playoff opener.

But there he is, still coaching. Dale Hunter took over the Capitals after the team chose to move on from Bruce Boudreau. You could have argued Boudreau led the Capitals as far as he was ever going to lead them, given their struggles to win in the playoffs. But for a few months, it didn't look like Hunter was going to even get a chance to succeed in the postseason.

Yet there he is, still coaching.

Hunter isn't doing anything fancy. He isn't breaking new ground in the coaching ranks.

(For that matter, no one really ever does anymore. At this point, most good ideas are recycled. Concepts only seem "new" or "fresh" because they're often different from the last guy. But it's nothing a player hasn't heard before. The only thing different is the voice delivering the message, but sometimes that can make quite an impact.)

In fact, he's seemed so unimpressive at times that people assume the team is winning in spite of Hunter's presence on the bench.

Last week, I was all prepared to credit Hunter for a lot of this team's playoff success, but Yahoo! Sports' Puck Daddy blog had a piece suggesting he may be an "accidental genius." At the time, to be perfectly blunt, I couldn't do any better than that.

I'm baffled. I don't know if Dale Hunter is the NHL coaching equivalent of Chance the Gardener or if he's established a new paradigm for how the Capitals are to win in the playoffs. I can't figure out if he's lucked into success or if there's a method to his madness; I feel like Frank Grimes shaking his fist at Homer Simpson. And I certainly can't figure out how he's getting away with this stuff, as McPhee and Ted Leonsis have sold a style and star system for the last seven years that Hunter has summarily rejected through his playoff coaching. Yet, he's pulling it off.

Over the six games of the Capitals' series against the Rangers (Game 7 is Saturday at the Garden, and you couldn't pay me to bet against Hunter's team at this point), Hunter's sold me. This isn't some guy stumbling into playoff success. Instead, it's a coach and his staff helping a franchise redeem itself after years of failure with the old way that clearly wasn't going to work.

Hunter deserves a lot more credit than he's generally been given. You can look no further than Game 6 of this series for proof.

Joel Ward took a hideous high-sticking double minor in the closing seconds of Game 5. It was a garishly dumb penalty that allowed the Rangers to not only tie the game late in regulation, but also win it in overtime. Before NBC Sports Network's broadcast went off the air Monday night, the experts were already declaring the Capitals dead. After all, how could they ever rebound from such a stomach punch?

Instead of recoiling and giving up in Game 6, the Capitals played perhaps the best 40 minutes they've played in the postseason, taking a 2-0 lead. Their best player -- captain Alex Ovechkin -- was their best player, a threat every time he was on the ice, hustling at both ends of the rink, scoring on an absolute laser of a one-timer to get his team out to an early lead. Goalie Braden Holtby was brilliant again, stopping everything until the last minute, when Marian Gaborik scored off John Carlson's rear end.

Don't discount the ice time issue with Ovechkin. He's played fewer minutes in these playoffs, but when his team needed him the most, he was all over the place Wednesday night. He looked -- dare I say it -- fresh, like it was Game 1 of the team's playoff push and not Game 13. I'm not saying Ovechkin tired out in any of Boudreau's seasons, but the fact he looks fresh now when he didn't always look like that in April and May could very well be because of something Hunter has been doing ... or that Boudreau wasn't.

You can credit the leadership of Ovechkin and hard-nosed, mentally-tough veterans like Mike Knuble and Jason Chimera if you'd like. But Hunter is the one leading the charge. He sent the best message he could by starting Ward in Game 6, a great show of confidence in a player who let himself and his entire team down at the worst possible time in Game 5.

Ward and the entire team rewarded Hunter for that with a great effort in an elimination game, and you'd be silly if you were to guess anything but the same thing will happen Saturday night in Game 7.

While the Capitals of old just folded up whenever something bad happened, Hunter has instilled a sense of mental toughness and grit that was so sorely lacking in previous playoff efforts. It's one of the biggest reasons this team is looking at a chance to take down the top remaining seed in these crazy playoffs.