Playoffs showcase Capitals' Hunter at his pesky best

Phil Jackman

April 19, 1993|By Phil Jackman

LANDOVER -- Around the NHL, Dale Hunter is known as a pest. That is, until Stanley Cup playoff time rolls around, when he becomes a real pest.

"As much as I hate the guy, I have to respect him for what he does for his team," said an exasperated New York Islanders coach Al Arbour after the veteran center had all but carried the Washington Capitals to a 3-1 victory over his team in Game 1 of their Patrick Division semifinal series last night.

The Caps trailed, 1-0, from the 5:56 mark of the first period and, during the regular season, had recovered to win just three of 27 games when trailing entering the third period.

"The pressure was on," said Washington coach Terry Murray. "It always is when you're at home for the first playoff game, because expectations are so high among the fans, the press and the players themselves."

"It is a different game now," added Hunter, "and even more important that you work hard and be patient while waiting for a break."

Just three minutes into the third period and with Arbour begging his Islanders to "stop back-pedaling," the Caps' big break came. It was your typical goal-line stand in front of the New York net, bodies flying hither and yon and no one having the slightest idea where the puck might be.

Todd Krygier had put the puck on the net and the second member of the Hunter line, Pat Elynuik, was about to take a swipe at it when Hunter noticed "two defensemen took Pat out." Just a glimpse of the disk is all Hunter needed.

"The puck's laying there, I'm gonna go for it," he said of his headfirst dive that ended up with his somehow flicking the puck up and over sprawling goalie Glenn Healy.

Dale got absolutely no style points for the dive, and the goal is hardly the type that shows up on a team's highlight film. Truth be told, it was ugly, but as he was quick to point out, "This time of year, teams get goals like that from the so-called 'plumbers.' "

It was still only tied, however, so four minutes later, Hunter did it again.

While Dimitri Khristich was teeing it up and getting ready to swat away from about 20 feet, Hunter belted an Islanders defenseman out of the way and was searching out another when a rebound of the Khristich shot landed at his feet. How do you do! An instant later, it was in the bin.

Khristich tallied the insurance goal on a rebound inside the last five minutes and, here again, Hunter was buzzing in front of the net doing what he could to let Healy and his defensive corps know he was around.

"Aw, he's been doing it so long he knows what this [playoff hockey] is all about," Arbour said grudgingly. "But he wasn't the only one. It was 2-1 and we had a great chance to tie it when [Rick] Tabaracci came up big."

Something that seemed to work against the Islanders was getting an early goal, Ray Ferraro converting an odd-man advantage pass from Patrick Flatley. Washington hadn't so much as a shot on goal at that point and the visitors were storming the net and controlling the tempo.

"Then we sort of slipped back into neutral," said Arbour. "The last thing we wanted to do is sit back. But we did, and from the middle of the game on, we weren't dictating on the transition play."

In other words, momentum shifted to the Caps, and, over the last two periods, the home team outshot the visitors, 21-12.

Like just about everyone else in both locker rooms, Arbour theorized: "This is going to be a grinding kind of series, probably coming down to how the special teams do. They got two power-play goals tonight and we were 0-for-5."

Grinding, physical, hard-nosed, call it what you like, they're all terms that play right into Dale Hunter's hands. Tabaracci has been a teammate of Dale's for just a couple of weeks and already he admires his new mate as "physical, a plugger, a guy who shows up [and plays hard-hard] every night."

Terry Murray remembered that Hunter celebrated his 1,000th NHL game just last week, "but it's as though he's gone through 2,000 games, the way he's played throughout his career."

The victory and the goals were nice, but the game star seemed happiest thinking ahead to Game 2 (tomorrow, 7:40 p.m.) and the rest of the series.

"It's going to be tight checking. We're going to have to play as hard as we can as long as we can and hope for the breaks," he said.

His game exactly.

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