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Washington Capitals new head coach Dale Hunter gives instructions to players during the third quarter of their NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues in Washington November 29, 2011. Blues won the game. (MOLLY RILEY/REUTERS)
Washington Capitals new head coach Dale Hunter gives instructions to players during the third quarter of their NHL hockey game against the St. Louis Blues in Washington November 29, 2011. Blues won the game. (MOLLY RILEY/REUTERS)

Roy MacGregor

Transition time for Capitals Add to ...

Yeah, that’s the ticket, yeah – fire the coach.

Strange, isn’t it, in the three days over which the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes and Anaheim Ducks all fired their coaches, there were charts and analyses that argued, well, it works. One team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, could even trace their most recent Stanley Cup to the firing of one coach and the hiring of another.

Well, the early results had been rather mixed heading into Wednesday’s games, one of which featured the Washington Capitals at the Ottawa Senators. The bench most closely watched, by a long bit, is Washington’s.

The Capitals – seemingly all but guaranteed a Stanley Cup only a season or two back – made the most dramatic shift of all, firing Bruce Boudreau, the loquacious (nickname “Gabby”) and player-friendly coach who once preached full-press attack, and replaced him with Dale Hunter, a taciturn former Capitals captain who could be nicknamed “No Comment” and preaches a system that plugs up the middle to a point where, at times, it is painful to watch.

This, for a team featuring Alexander Ovechkin, once the game’s most dynamic player and personality, a team that has Alexander Semin, who is overflowing with every gift but, it sometimes seems, desire, that also has the slick Nicklas Backstrom, speedy Marcus Johansson and gambling defenceman Mike Green?

Whatever it is that has ailed the Capitals this season, it remains a mystery. The power play – once the most feared in all of hockey – sputters so badly that, during the first period Wednesday, they had nearly two minutes of five-on-three and could not score.

Ovechkin, for years the game’s most dangerous goal scorer, had only eight goals heading into Ottawa. The team’s leading goal scorer is neither Ovechkin nor Semin but a player called Jason Chimera. Semin has been benched and scratched to no avail. Ovechkin seems to have disappeared through one of those magic holes he draws in those Mr. Big chocolate bar ads.

When Boudreau could no longer find the buttons to push, as he once had so easily, he was canned and replaced. It’s all the fashion in modern hockey.

Such a coach-firing binge had Dick Irvin, the long-time broadcaster, now semi-retired, shaking his silver head. “Beginning in 1940,” he says, “the Montreal Canadiens had just two coaches in the next 28 years.” One, of course, was his father, Dick Irvin Sr.

“During that time,” the son says, “they somehow managed to win the Stanley Cup 11 times and finish in first place 13 times. Once during the 28 years the team didn’t make the playoffs. Also, there was a consecutive four-year stretch when they didn’t get past the first round of the playoffs. Yet after both those disasters, the coaches didn’t get fired.”

But that was then and this is now.

Players, of course, are careful when discussing the man who controls their ice time, but it is impossible not to detect some confusion in the Capitals dressing room. Ovechkin voices all the right words, but it is impossible to see what he really feels. Brooks Laich says that under Hunter the team is a little more “passive” when the other team has the puck, but turns “aggressive” when they can turn a puck over and attack. “I think we’re more of a chip-and-chase team,” he says. It’s not exciting, not very Ovechkin, and too early to tell whether it will work or not.

Wednesday evening, in fact, there were several variations of the Capitals on display, ranging from a ridiculously boring “trap” team to one that exploded as of old in the final period. Down 2-1 after two periods, Washington roared back to win 5-3, with even Ovechkin scoring off a rush that seemed plucked from the past. Ahead 4-2 at one point, they nearly squandered the win by sloppy play and bad penalties in the dying minutes. It took an empty-net goal to settle matters.

Still, a win is a win – and gratifying to Hunter, for sure.

Which Washington Capitals team finishes out the remaining 55 games remains to be seen.

But guaranteed it will be carefully watched.

 
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