Washington fans under 30 only know Dale Hunter as the taciturn man who coached the Caps to within a couple of goals of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals. Hunter is also now known as the coach who couldn’t get through to Alex Ovechkin, the resident superstar who has been re-energized this season under new coach Adam Oates.
But Hunter’s portrait doesn’t hang from the Verizon Center rafters because of anything he did while standing behind the bench.
No, Hunter is in the Caps’ pantheon because only Peter Bondra, Hall of Famer Mike Gartner, Ovechkin and Michal Pivonka scored more points for Washington and because only current assistant coach Calle Johansson, Bondra and Kelly Miller skated in more Caps games. Hunter is also the only player to ever accumulate 2,000 penalty minutes in a Washington uniform – not counting the infamous hit on the New York Islanders’ Pierre Turgeon during the 1993 playoffs that cost him a then-NHL record 21-game suspension.
All of those numbers were earned during Hunter’s 12 seasons in Washington, but even captaining the Caps to their only Stanley Cup finals in 1998 can’t top what the barrel-like center did during his first playoff spring in Washington.
After failing to qualify for the postseason during their first eight years after being born as an expansion franchise in 1974, the Caps won just two series over the next five seasons, culminating with a blown 3-1 series lead that culminated in a 4-3 four-overtime loss to the Islanders that ended early on Easter Sunday morning at the Capital Centre in 1987.
In response to his team’s apparent lack of heart after four straight springs in which Washington had been ahead in a series but lost, general manager David Poile traded forwards Gaetan Duchesne and Alan Haworth and a first-round draft choice to Quebec for the feisty Hunter and goalie Clint Malarchuk.
“Enthusiastic, fiery, competitive” were three of the adjectives Caps coach Bryan Murray used to describe Hunter, the 27-year-old son of an Ontario wheat farmer. In short, Washington seemingly had a new leader.
Hunter ranked third on the team in assists, fourth in goals and fifth in points in 1987-88, leading only in penalty minutes. And when the Caps lost a 4-1 advantage during the third period of Game 4 of the Patrick Division semifinals in Philadelphia and fell 5-4 to the Flyers in overtime, they trailed the series 3-1. Incredibly, Washington won blowouts in Game 5 and 6 to force a decisive seventh game at Cap Centre 25 years ago yesterday.
Although Hunter had a goal and an assist, the Caps and Flyers went to overtime tied 4-4. It was surely going to be “here we go again” time for Washington against a Philadelphia squad which had advanced to the Cup finals the previous spring. But all of a sudden, defenseman Larry Murphy passed ahead to the wide-open Hunter, who streaked in from center ice and beat Flyers goalie Ron Hextall for the goal that remains the most memorable ever scored by a Cap at home (John Druce’s score that sent them to their first conference finals in 1990 and Joe Juneau’s that put them into the 1998 Cup finals were both scored on the road).
“I kind of moved the puck a little bit and [Hextall] left a little room between his legs,” Hunter said. “I was glad to see it go through. There wasn’t much room.”
There was plenty of room elation and relief in Washington’s dressing room. Caps owner Abe Pollin said, “The rap we’ve had about not winning big games, about chokes, ought to be put to rest forever.”
Added Hunter, “We showed that we’re not chokers.”
Twenty five years and 28 playoff series later, that remains the only time that the Caps have rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win (they came back to beat the New York Rangers after trailing 2-0 in 2009).
And Hunter, who went on set franchise playoff records for games, points and penalty minutes, was the hero en route to having his No. 32 jersey retired to those rafters a dozen years later.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin