LANDOVER -- It was Dale Hunter Appreciation Night at the Capital Centre last night. It was long overdue.
Perhaps the quietest guy on the Washington Capitals squad, at least until a fight starts, the veteran winger turned in a memorable performance on what was a milestone evening for him. About the only thing Hunter did not do as the Caps were beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, 5-3, is drive the Zamboni.
First, he shadowed the Penguins mean Mario Lemieux who, despite his bad back, is a scoring machine that has to be marked very closely. Hunter was on him like a Louisiana bloodhound.
Then the Caps needed someone to create some commotion around the Pittsburgh goal, the team going the first 13 minutes of the game without so much as a shot being directed goalie Ken Wregget's way. Dale ended up accounting for four shots, high for him, having averaged just 1.3 shots per game over the first 61 outings.
The Caps also needed some goals after the Penguins took an early lead and the contest was square at 2-2 midway through the second period. Hunter scored twice, including the goal that put Washington ahead for good and, here's where one of the milestones comes in, he recorded his 100th goal as a Cap, then No. 101.
He also added an assist on what turned out to be the winning tally of the contest by Dimitri Khristich, making it quite an evening for the 31-year-old bulldog playing in his 900th game in the NHL.
"When you've been around as long as Hunter has (12 seasons), you have to have talent," said coach Terry Murray. "You also have to have leadership. You also have to be a good guy. Dale fits the bill on all counts.
"Not only does he come to play every night, it's the same way with all the practices. He's an inspiration."
Aw shucks, t'weren't nothing, or words to that effect, was the way Hunter chose to handle the post-game adulation. Fact is, his reaction was as genuine as the effort he puts out each and every time he pulls on the skates.
The win gave the Caps a 7-1-1 record in their last nine games while pushing Pittsburgh to 2-6-3 in its last 11. The defending Stanley Cup champions hold fourth place in the Patrick Division by just three points over the New York Islanders who have a game in hand.
"I don't worry about anybody but us," said Hunter. "What's important right now is we're cranking it up and playing better, something you have to do as the season wears down. You get momentum late and it carries over into the playoffs. You can't just turn it on in April."
After their smashing 17-5 start this season, the Caps hit a couple of lulls and not only lost the division lead to the New York Rangers, they fell as many as eight points back. They have since narrowed that gap to three points a couple of times and still aim to lead the division and the NHL come season's end. Their 8-3-1 mark in February, mostly on the road, suggests both goals are attainable.
Murray says the suddenly rosy outlook is the result of the team "once again getting headed in the right direction." That translates to everyone carrying his weight, contributing, pulling his oar, whatever.
With a dozen games among their final 18 scheduled at the Capital Centre, the Caps look to be in clover. Across the way last night, it was as if Penguins coach Scotty Bowman had just stepped out of a thicket of poison ivy.
To the suggestion Washington has his team's number after winning five of six games against it, Bowman assured, "They don't have our number. They hold, they hook, they hold. Tonight, finally, some of it got called, but it was too late for us."
Regardless, Pittsburgh's falling fast, Lemieux's missing games in bunches because of his back and the club just swung a big three-way deal with the Philadelphia Flyers and Los Angeles Kings that dictates that a fairly drastic change in the way the Penguins approach the game has to be put in place almost instantly.
The way things go in hockey, though, the whole picture could change dramatically in a couple of days or so. That's why it helps to have a Dale Hunter show up every day in his pickup truck looking to earn his keep.