One of the most popular players ever to wear a Capitals sweater will begin his new job as Washington's head coach tonight, as Dale Hunter leads the Caps in a home game against the St. Louis Blues.
On Monday morning, the Capitals announced that head coach Bruce Boudreau had been fired and that he was being replaced with Hunter, who is one of just four players to have his number retired by Washington.
Boudreau had guided Washington to first-place finishes in the Southeast Division in each of the past four years after taking over behind the bench on November 22, 2007. However, the talent-laden team never advanced past the second round of the playoffs and is just 12-9-1 this season despite beginning the year with seven straight victories.
Boudreau had a record of 201-88-40 in the regular season and reached the 200- win plateau faster than any coach in modern NHL history, but the team managed only a 17-20 mark in the playoffs.
Enter Hunter, who hopes to get the Caps back on track after the club lost six of its last eight games, including a 5-1 setback at Buffalo on Saturday. Hunter has never coached in the NHL, but he was in his 11th season as the head coach of the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights. He owns the highest winning percentage in league history with a record of 451-189-23-24 and was the 2003-04 winner of the Brian Kilrea Canadian Hockey League (CHL) Coach of the Year.
The 51-year-old Ontario native played 19 seasons in the NHL and ranks second in league history with 3,565 penalty minutes. He was also a productive player with 323 goals and 697 assists for 1,020 points in 1,407 games for Quebec, Washington and Colorado.
"First and foremost everybody knows his track record as a player and what he accomplished on the ice and what type of player he was," Caps veteran right wing Mike Knuble said of Hunter. "I think that'll carry a lot of respect. It sort of puts you on edge that when a guy is talking about it you know he's done it and you know he's done it well in our league for a long time."
The Capitals were pounded by the Sabres on Saturday and the 5-1 setback marked the third time in five games that Washington had surrendered five or more goals. Jason Chimera scored the lone goal for the Capitals, while Tomas Vokoun was tagged for all five goals on 28 shots.
"We need to support each other better and not get down on ourselves," said Washington forward Alex Ovechkin. "We will snap out of this slump, but to do that we have to play better as a team."
Hunter's reign will begin at the start of a three-game homestand. That could be good news for the coach, as Washington is 8-2-1 at the Verizon Center this season.
Meanwhile, the Blues, who fired their head coach earlier this month, have turned things around since Ken Hitchcock took over for Davis Payne. St. Louis is 7-1-2 under Hitchcock after starting the season with a 6-7-0 record.
The Blues hope to have forward Vladimir Sobotka back tonight after he missed Sunday's game due to oral surgery. Sobotka has two goals and seven assists in 22 games this season.
St. Louis has won two straight on the road and is 5-6-1 as the guest this year. The Blues will complete a three-game swing Friday in Colorado.
Washington has won two straight, three of four and four of its last six meetings with the Blues. St. Louis has dropped its last three trips to D.C. and last won in the nation's capital on Jan. 28, 2003.