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LARSMONT… Two days after the Washington Capitals were eliminated from the Stanley Cup tourney by the New York Rangers, their head coach and former star player, Dale Hunter, stepped down, saying he was going back home to be with his family. As is usual with these kinds of stories, the conjecture began immediately. When the club fired Bruce Boudreau in late November of last year, they brought Hunter in to fill the void. Based on some answers to questions posed to him by the media at the time, I had an inner feeling that his time with the club might be limited to the completion of this season, whether they made the playoffs or not.
They were streaky through the remainder of the year but made it in as the seventh seed in the East and advanced to the second round by upsetting the Boston Bruins in a Game 7 OT thriller. In the second round they extended the NY Rangers to seven games as well but not with the same end result. Some analysts would say that the team made it that far because of the superb play of their young net minder Braden Holtby, and I tend to agree with that assessment to a great extent. It’s no secret that the Capitals had been an offense-first juggernaut when playing in that mode. The problem is that it never took them far in the playoffs. So, Boudreau tried mixing in some defense with that, with some incomplete results, and look where that got him.
As well, at the end of Boudreau’s tenure as Caps coach, it was evident to me that his Russian superstar Alex Ovechkin was less than thrilled with having to play the two-way game, mouthing some profanities at Boudreau during a game last fall that wasn’t going in the Caps’ favor. In this situation, Boudreau was on his own. It is alleged that the Caps’ owner Ted Leonsis (whom I generally like) has some kind of lunch or dinner meeting with “Ovi” once every week or two. It is not clear if he ever did that with double ’B’. In between BB and Leonsis was Caps GM George McPhee (another hockey guy I have positive regard for). I’m not sure if either of them ever stepped in for BB and told Ovi they had their coach’s back.
So, double B was dismissed and McPhee perhaps did not have anyone on his emergency short list of coaching replacements, thus he went to his old buddy Hunter. I felt that Hunter spent a month observing the club and absorbing their karma, or lack thereof, before he started to tinker. And of course when he did, he demanded that everyone play it his way, and that included defense. Especially in the playoffs. In short time, Ovi saw his ice time per game going downward like a marble dropping off of the Empire State Building. When pressed about it by the media, he was careful to say the right things, or at least say nothing that could be construed as sour grapes. But I could read between the lines. Ovi was fuming.
It was my belief that with Hunter knowing this was his final stand with the club, he decided he was going to coach this club and its players the way they should be coached, with accountability for all, superstar or not. In that final game with the Rangers, I saw a $9 mil-a-season guy, and the team captain at that, duffing his way through the club’s most important game of the season to date. They lost, and I couldn’t get the sense from Ovi whether it mattered or not. 48 hours later, Hunter stepped down, and when he headed back to his Ontario home I’ll wager you that he was all smiles.
Add to the fray that the club has another very talented Russian player, at least offensively, in Alexander Semin. However, Semin ($6.7 mil/season) is generally regarded as an enigmatic player who only shows up when he feels like it. Sometime in the 24 hours or less following the Rangers’ loss, they were both headed for Helsinki to play for the Russian entry in the World Championships. (You can make what you want out of that tourney.) Neither stuck around the DC area to have to deal with the press writing their way through another post-season meltdown, and I’m actually wondering if they had their flight arrangements made before the Rangers’ Game 7.
It is clear to me that Ovi has not matured enough yet to be captain material, and I wonder if that shot was called by Leonsis. In addition, he got his big contract much too soon and doesn’t have an agent through whom the Caps can communicate to him (his mom handled his contract dealings). He only wants to play it his way, not the Caps’ way, the way of the NHL, or anything else. It’s all Ovi, all of the time. He is a big physical beast, with two or three patented moves that all other teams in the NHL have figured out, and apparently isn’t smart enough to reinvent himself each off-season to keep his offensive numbers off of the charts.
So, Mr. Leonsis, who is running the club through McPhee—who are you going to get to coach your train wreck of a team next season? Ovi’s mom?
THE ROLLER COASTER OF the Stanley Cup tourney continues onward, and this afternoon the Phoenix Coyotes staved off a trip to the golf course with a 3-0 shutout of the LA Kings—in LA, no less. Home ice is proving to be meaningless in this post-season. The Kings are now at 3-1 in the series, with a chance to close it out Tuesday eve in the desert. The NY Rangers played a very strong game Saturday afternoon, bolstered by a shutout effort by Henrik Lundqvist to go up 2-1 against the NJ Devils. It will be interesting to see what transpires with the Kings, and I am wondering whether the Yo-tays will pull one out in Game 5. The Blueshirts can take command of their series with a victory in Newark tonight. And once again, my prognosticating is down the toilette.
WE HAVE NOT SEEN A Triple Crown winner since I was six years removed from high school, but once again there is one equine athlete with a chance to pull it off. I’ll Have Another has won the Derby, and Saturday added the Preakness to his list of victories. Can he prevail at the Belmont? That would be cool…. PEACE
Marc Elliott is a freelance sports opinion writer who splits time between his hometown in Illinois and Minnesota. Elliott grew up in the Twin Cities with many of his childhood neighbors working or playing for the Vikings and Twins. He participated in baseball, football and hockey before settling on hockey as his own number one sport. Elliott wrote “The Masked Fan Speaks” column for the Lake County Chronicle for ten years and was a prominent guest on the former “All Sports” WDSM 710 AM in Duluth.