The Washington Capitals have gone through worse stretches of games than their current 3-6-1 tailspin. And each time the going got tough, head coach Bruce Boudreau always found a way to get them going.
But not this time.
The Capitals fired Boudreau Monday morning and hired team legend Dale Hunter to replace him.
Hunter, 51, becomes the 15th coach in Capitals history and will make his debut behind the bench Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues at Verizon Center.
The reason behind Boudreau's firing: the players had tuned him out.
"This wasn't a slump. You can ride out slumps," general manager George McPhee said. "This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce, and when you see that, as much as you don't want to make a change, you have to make a change. Bruce did a terrific job here, we're very proud of him and the work he did for us."
Boudreau's downfall came as the Caps struggled to get out of another funk. The breaking point was a 5-1 loss to the Sabres Saturday night. Buffalo was playing without nine regulars in their lineup, but still dominated the Caps.
Not only did the Caps lose that game, but Alex Ovechkin was a minus-4 in the contest, extending what is turning out to be his worst season in the NHL. Ovechkin, who seemed to fall off of Boudreau's bandwagon early on this season, has just eight goals and nine assists in 22 games and is a minus-7.
The regular-season struggles by Boudreau's team are a bit unusual. His teams usually roll through the regular season with ease. It's the playoffs that have perplexed Boudreau through the years. Despite having perhaps the most talented group of players in the league, Boudreau was not able to take the Caps deep into the playoffs and win the Stanley Cup.
With no previous postseason success and a flailing start to the 2011-12 campaign, a change needed to be made in the eyes of Washington management.
"I think Bruce came in here and emptied the tank," McPhee said. "He gave it everything he could and did a really good job, but the tank was empty. And when that happens you get a new coach and see if it makes a difference."
You could say Hunter has been looking down on the Caps throughout Boudreau's tenure as coach. Hunter's No. 32 hangs in the rafters, one of just four numbers to be retired by the Caps in team history.
He said he has also followed his old team very closely over the years, taping Caps games and then watching them on the long bus rides while coaching his junior team, the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
While Hunter has no NHL coaching experience, he has proven to be a successful coach in juniors. He helped the Knights win their first Memorial Cup Championship in 2004-05 and is the fastest head coach in OHL history to record 300 and 400 career wins.
"This is the only NHL team he's ever wanted to coach," McPhee said. "He's had opportunities with other teams, but this is the one he's wanted to coach. We've talked consistently over 12 years, and was always hoping that one day Dale could coach this team. But timing is everything, and the time is right now."
Hunter admitted as much during his first meeting with the media Monday afternoon.
"It took the Washington Capitals to stop what I was doing there (in London)," he said.
Two members of the Caps played for Hunter in the OHL -- Dennis Wideman and John Carlson. So that's who Ovechkin confided in upon learning that Hunter had been hired.
"They said he's a straight-up coach," Ovechkin said. "If he wants to say something to you, he's going to say it. I think it's good."
Specifically, Hunter said he's all about speed. He wants his team to backcheck and forecheck fast. He said he's also big on responsibility -- especially in the defensive zone.
"If you play hard on the ice, you'll always be playing for me," Hunter said.
Hunter will rely on his junior success as a coach and his own success as a player during his 19-year NHL career from 1980-99. He appeared in 1,407 games and collected 1,020 points (323 goals, 697 assists) along with 3,565 penalty minutes with Quebec, Washington and Colorado.
"Dale was an intelligent player, he had talent and he was tough. And he was downright mean sometimes," McPhee said. "We probably won't see a player like that again for a while. ... The best thing you could ever say about Dale Hunter was whether the game was home or away, or he was injured or healthy, winning or losing, that guy played the same way every night, and it was hard."
Hunter captained the Capitals from the 1994-95 season until the 1998-99 season and was named to the NHL All-Star Team in 1997.
He played in 872 games for the Capitals from 1987-99 and compiled 556 points (181 goals, 375 goals) and 2,003 penalty minutes. Hunter ranks first all-time in Capitals’ history in penalty minutes, fourth in games played, tied for ninth in goals and third in assists. His 100 career playoff games with the Capitals rank tied for first in team history while his 72 points and 47 assists both lead the franchise.
"He's a legend here," Ovechkin said. "He knows how to win games and knows how to play."
Hunter is the only player in NHL history to record more than 1,000 points and 3,000 penalty minutes. He ranks second in NHL history in penalty minutes, 53rd in assists and 73rd all-time in points and his 186 playoff games rank tied for 23rd all-time. He was originally drafted by the Quebec Nordiques in the second round (41st overall) of the 1979 NHL Entry Draft.