The scholarship on Dale Hunter's inaugural season as Washington Capitals head coach is going to be fascinating whether the team is eliminated by the New York Rangers or plays on to challenge for the conference title and the Stanley Cup. The "Accidental Genius" debate is the crossroads between advanced stats and observable evidence; celebrity and roster roles; offensive philosophy and sacrificial defense.
As the Capitals head into Game 6 on Wednesday night against the Rangers in D.C., down 3-2 after Monday night's humbling overtime defeat, the debates over Alex Ovechkin's effectiveness (no shots in Game 5) and the team's shot-blocking defense (which screened Braden Holtby on the game-winner) rage on.
But the primary question is whether this incarnation of the Capitals, with Hunter's philosophy at its core, is a better playoff team than they were under Bruce Boudreau, both in execution on the ice and psychologically.
The answer is that it depends on whom you ask.
As the hockey world is aware, there's been a dramatic shift in style for the Capitals, away from relying on their skill to overwhelm opponents to puck-chipping, defense-collapsing Hunter Hockey that's made virtually every game's margin razor-thin.
Brooks Laich of the Capitals, in a terrific piece by Bruce Arthur on the matter, believes this is a wise decision because you can always defend against skill, recalling the Capitals' 2009-10 team that had 121 points:
"Every team that we beat is going home and getting better, because they practise harder, because they lost. And that year we won everything, and some of our players didn't practise hard … we were a very young team, and for some guys — they'd say 'I had a goal and an assist last night didn't you see me? I don't care, I'll just sauce pucks around on the ice.' "
Still, isn't that the danger of success, or of personality, or of youth, over the danger of relying on skill and style? Isn't this the ancient NHL cycle of the battle over style, and another triumph of negating skill over skill itself?
"See, I like to think — people say this guy's so skilled, that guy's so skilled, but to me, skill is the ability to win," Laich said. "Who's the most skilled guy in the league, the guy that you don't want to play against? The most frustrating thing is going off the ice, looking over at the other team, and they're saying, 'We kicked your ass. You can't beat me. You can't beat me.' And I could give a s—- over who can toe-drag or sauce-pass, skill is the ability to win. That's what I think. … Is Alex Kovalev skilled? Where did that get him? You know? You can play against skill. You can defend against skill."
Laich has been one of Hunter's most outspoken supporters, crediting the coach and his staff on several occasions with having the right temperament for playoff hockey — never too high, never too low, and never getting hysterical enough that you'd half expect an HBO camera to be filming the tirade.
To that end, the Capitals have earned a reputation this postseason for being a mentally tougher team, as exemplified by Holtby's 5-0 record and a .959 save percentage after losses. They don't wilt under adversity. They pay the price to win — Ovechkin dove and blocked a shot in Game 5! — and they are able to maintain leads late in games.
Or do they?
One facet of the Hunter coaching scholarship that's coming into focus, as the sample size grows, is that the Caps' defensive prowess in the third period might be overstated. From Bill Barnwell of Grantland: (s/t Japers')
The Capitals had one-goal leads in the third period of 12 playoff games under Boudreau. They held on to seven of them. After the loss to the Rangers on Monday, those same Capitals have had six one-goal leads in the same situation under Hunter. They've lost four of those leads. This, we remind you, has all occurred over the past two weeks.
Doesn't it seem like they've been better than that in close games? Well, if it does, you've been tricked by independent outcomes. The Capitals blew third-period leads in games 2 and 5 of the Bruins series before doing so again in Game 2 of the Rangers series. In each case, the Capitals scored the next goal of the game and won the contest. It's great that they won, but "knowing how to win" in the context of Olczyk's statement and the new Capitals style doesn't mean "allow a goal and then score another one." If anything, that's Bruce Boudreau's style! The Capitals had been a little lucky to win all three games in which they had blown leads, and it had masked their struggles in doing so before now
The common rejoinder to this type of analysis is that despite the blown leads, they did win the games.
That's what makes assessing Dale Hunter so challenging: If the Capitals rally to win this series, his style and decisions still fly in the face of hockey logic. The team's stalwart psyche is still based on a debatable narrative of defensive prowess.
There's something almost Tebowian about this combination of inept performance when evaluated by traditional standards and results in the win/loss column. Maybe Dale Hunter's "Nihilism over stylism" offensive philosophy is untenable. Or maybe it's exactly what this roster, unable to grasp the concept that "you can defend against skill," needs in order to thrive.