When it's big game, Hunter's well-armed

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PITTSBURGH -- Obviously, they don't call him "Big Game Hunter" for nothing.

During the regular season, not much about Dale Hunter is written because what he does is not headline material. He mucks. He digs. He gets under the skin of the opposing team's big men.

When you want to find Hunter, you usually look for the players in the corner digging for the puck, or into the crowd that's involved in a pushing and shoving match.

Or you look deep into the pile of bodies in front of the goal. Somewhere near the bottom you will find Hunter still trying to get position.

But at Stanley Cup playoff time, Hunter traditionally emerges into the foreground.

That's what he has done throughout his 16-year NHL career, and that's what he did in Game 1 Saturday, in Washington's 5-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. When the Capitals were in position to tumble down the slope of disaster, Hunter took the game on his stick and carried Washington to victory with two goals and two assists, including the game-winning assist on the second of rookie defenseman Sergei Gonchar's two goals.

"When you're a kid growing up, playoffs was all there was," said Hunter, his eyes full of merriment. "The Stanley Cup playoffs. You ask any kid growing up who played hockey, the Stanley Cup was it. I remember watching Boston win it and Montreal win it.

"I was telling Kono [Steve Konowalchuk] how as a kid we'd watch the first period and then during intermission we'd run out and play a little shinny with our little sticks around the house pretending I was Bobby Clarke or Bobby Orr. And Kono said, 'Hey, I did the same thing.' And guess what? My kids are doing the same thing now."

He may not be Clarke or Orr, but there is no denying Hunter's career-long impact on the playoffs. Yes, he is the NHL's all-time leader in playoff penalty minutes with 617 in 134 games. Yes, he holds the record for the longest suspension in NHL history -- 21 games -- for a late playoff hit on then-New York Islander Pierre Turgeon two years ago.

But he is also tied for second in NHL history with four overtime playoff winners, including two series-winning goals, and has 100 playoff points on 38 goals and 62 assists.

For the record, his 22 goals lead the Capitals in all-time playoff scoring and his 56 points are second only to Mike Ridley's 60-point production.

And going into yesterday's games, it was Hunter's four points that led the NHL postseason scoring race.

"He's just very workmanlike," said Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld. "He's a humble guy who just goes about the game, playing it like it's his duty, like it's his job to play that way.

"He does whatever he has to do to win every confrontation he's in, whether that's a one-on-one along the boards, or fighting for space in front of the net or checking the big line or making plays on the power play. He's just one of these pros who has always played the game to his maximum capability every time on the ice."

Growing up on a farm in Petrolia, Ontario, Hunter learned about dedication to hard work from his dad.

"My dad coached me and my brothers a lot growing up, and he emphasized playoff hockey a lot," Hunter said. "When we were growing up through minor hockey or Junior B, he made us realize that this was the time that's do or die -- and you have to do because why work all year and not work hard in the playoffs?"

Caps center Joe Juneau remembers when he was growing up in Quebec watching Hunter play for the Nordiques and he sees very little difference now.

"Dale was always there," said Juneau. "He wasn't the kind of guy who would disappear, ever. He was there in the regular season working hard, too. But . . . . [Saturday] night, he gave another demonstration of why he is who he is. Hunter, and his entire line, did a great job on Pittsburgh's top line. And then Hunter came out and got four big goals for us and they came at the right time with our power play not going. And those goals came from pure hard work."

CAPITALS TONIGHT

Opponent: Pittsburgh Penguins

Site: Civic Arena, Pittsburgh

Time: 7:30

TV/Radio: HTS/WMAL (630 AM)

Outlook: Washington will try to cut down on its penalties -- it racked up 34 penalty minutes on 12 penalties in Game 1. Pittsburgh coach Ed Johnston tried to shake up his team by scratching C John Cullen and C Shawn McEachern Saturday. They will return tonight. D Len Barrie, who had one Pittsburgh goal and was speared by Washington's Peter Bondra, will be out tonight with a sore midsection. The Penguins also will be without D Wayne McBean (wrist). Washington reports C Dave Poulin (separated shoulder) and D Mark Tinordi (sprained knee) are out.

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