Win or lose Wednesday night, Dale Hunter should return as head coach of the Capitals next season.
Not because hes a media darling (hes not). Not because hes the worlds best communicator (hes not). And not because he needs the money (he doesnt).
Hunter should be back as head coach of the Capitals because, well, they need him.
Hes made them believe in playing the right way with a system that wins in the playoffs.
Hes persuaded his players most notably his star players to check their egos at the door and that teams win in the postseason by having well-defined roles.
And, quite frankly, the Capitals have made too much progress under Hunter for him to walk away now.
But dont take my word for it.
Mike Knuble has been with the Capitals for three years and has seen them flare out in the playoffs each of the past two springs. But since Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28, Knuble said, he has seen a slow and deliberate transformation that has led them to a Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
Resistance, he said, has turned to acceptance.
Bruce was here 20 games and Dales been here 60, and its taken every bit of that to get everybody to buy in, Knuble said. Some guys, the first day theyre drinking the Kool-Aid. Other guys, it takes a couple of months to get them to do it.
Its an interesting challenge to change tendencies and to change habits. The offensive guys, theyve been offensive their whole life. Since they could wipe their noses, theyve been out there scoring goals. Its kind of hard to get them all to think a little bit differently, because its whats gotten you here.
Hunter has somehow gotten players like Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin to see the light. He sees nothing wrong with letting both players sit on the bench while the Capitals try to close out a one-goal lead.
And Ovechkin has reluctantly acquiesced.
My role is still to score goals, Ovechkin said. But in different situations, he puts different guys out there. If we win, we win. If we lose, we lose. But I think everybody wants to support each other no matter what. Sometimes you get angry you didnt play a lot. Sometimes you get angry youre not out there. But if its good for the team, you have to eat it and stay on the same course.
Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said Ovechkin might have learned more through a trying season than he did in any of his most productive years in Washington.
A lot has gone on this year and guys have stepped up when he hasnt been at his best, Alzner said. I think with all the ups and downs that have gone on for the entire team, hes been able to learn a ton about what makes a team better.
He understands now exactly why hes not out there at times. Its not a shock to me or anybody. We all know who goes out when its a D-zone draw and who goes out when its an offensive zone draw.
Hunters ability to clearly define roles and establish a defensive mindset took the better part of five months, but now that the Capitals have gotten this far in their first-round series, its important for them to continue what theyve started.
Switching coaches after this season would erase all of that progress.
During the regular season, it was literally, What team is going to show up? It was a Jekyll and Hyde thing, Knuble said. Are we going to be a good, tight-checking team? Or are we going to be loose and sloppy and playing as if we didnt care much about the game? Now, everybody to a guy has been all in. Thats how you beat a Stanley Cup champion. You need everybody contributing and no fingers being pointed.
As a player and a coach, Hunter knows that anything can happen in a Game 7 and that ultimately his team will be judged on how far it goes in the postseason. But regardless of Wednesday nights outcome in Boston, Hunter owes it to the Capitals to stay in Washington and finish what hes started.