Hunter vs. Dineen: Caps Overtake Panthers, Continue the Fight for First

Laich played hard against the Panthers, despite being injured (Tom Turk/THW)

Dale Hunter and Kevin Dineen were similar players that played around the same time period. Hunter, once captain of the Washington Capitals, played 19 seasons in the NHL, and finished up with 1020 points in 1407 games along with 3525 PIMs. Dineen ended up with 760 points in 1188 games and 2229 PIMs. Hunter, a center, had a little more talent than Dineen, but the two ultimately played in whatever way would win their teams the game.

Fast-forward to 2012 and both Hunter and Dineen are back in the NHL as head coaches. While the two teams have players who will need to step up in light of the dire situation down the stretch, they also have coaches who are expected to bring the best out of those players. In a must-win situation like Tuesday night’s game featuring the Cats and Caps, it seems that the Capitals took on a true “Dale Hunter mentality” and put forth one of their best efforts of the season in a 4-0 win to overtake the Panthers in the division.

Dale Hunter has done well this season rallying the troops in statement games — which seem to happen every other week for the Caps. After the last two games against the Panthers, the Caps performed exceedingly well on home ice, and came out stronger than most expected, especially after a goal from Mathieu Perreault just 13 seconds into the game.

Orlov wearing a facemask to play against the Panthers (Tom Turk/THW)

They certainly didn’t let up on the gas either, as a few minutes later, Alex Ovechkin took advantage of the Caps’ only power play of the game and scored, followed by Jason Chimera in the second period, finally breaking his scoring slump for his 15th goal of the season. Ovechkin struck again to put icing on the Caps’ lead with a solid effort to keep the puck in and a laser shot that found the back of the net.

Not only did the Caps’ scorers show up on the stat sheet, but other efforts were noticed as well. Hunter’s game didn’t just bring points, but he had a noted ‘toughness’ that made him a leader on the teams he played for. One “Hunter-like effort” for the night came from Brooks Laich, who went from “unlikely to play” after sustaining a knee injury in Sunday’s game, to “probable” for Tuesday, to in the game against the Panthers. His valiant performance wasn’t in vain either: Laich won 88 percent of his faceoffs (7-of-8) and was on ice for the penalty kill for 1:47.

Vokoun worked hard to earn the win over the Panthers (Tom Turk/THW)

A less dramatic story, but equally as important was Joel Ward’s performance against the Panthers. Ward, who had been set to fourth-line minutes and has struggled to get anything going on the forecheck, was probably the most unsung hero of the night. However, Hunter didn’t overlook Ward’s game. He praised Ward’s effort, knowing that the role players’ output was just as important as the star players. Hunter applauded Ward winning battles in the corners and playing hard, as well as leading the whole line to shut down the Panthers’ best players.

With another divisional game coming up Thursday against the Winnipeg Jets, the Caps will need to put forth the same performance from Tuesday in that game as well to remain on par for the playoffs. It seems the team understands the importance of every game. To prepare, Perreault said the team knows what’s on the line, and that every two points will matter. After all, Tomas Vokoun, who was key in keeping the lead for the Caps against the Panthers said it best: “We don’t…want to be bubble team. We want to win our division.” That is the only way this team will make the playoffs.

On this night, Dale Hunter — the coach — seems to have brought out the best in the Capitals for at least one night. Now, with 29 games left, the players must channel a bit of Dale Hunter — the player — in every match remaining.