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Big Game Hunter (p. 2)
by Mike Vogel

Hunter wasn’t the biggest star during his days in Quebec, but he was an extremely important part of Quebec’s success. The Nordiques made the playoffs in each of Hunter’s seven seasons with the team. Twice, they advanced to the Conference Finals. But once Hunter left, it was all downhill for Quebec. The Nords still had Goulet and the Stastnys, but without their heart and soul, they missed the playoffs for five straight seasons and later moved to Denver where they are now known as the Colorado Avalanche. Hunter loved nothing more than the stage of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As a rookie, he registered four goals and six points in five playoff games. One of his tallies was an overtime game-winner. In Hunter’s sophomore season, the Nords advanced to the Conference Finals before falling to the New York Islanders who were on their way to a third straight Stanley Cup championship. Hunter scored two game-winners—including one in overtime—that spring.

During his seven seasons in Quebec, Hunter scored 16 playoff goals. Five were game-winners and three of those came in overtime.

Hunter’s last year in Quebec was 1986-87. A severe leg and ankle injury forced him to miss most of the season, and Nordique management questioned Hunter’s ability to return to his previous form. On June 13, 1987, Quebec traded Hunter and goaltender Clint Malarchuk to the Caps in exchange for forwards Gaetan Duchesne and Alan Haworth and a first round pick in the 1987 Entry Draft. (Quebec selected Joe Sakic with that pick.)

During his first year with the Caps, Hunter was still in a lot of pain because of the injury. Yet he missed only one game while totaling 59 points and 240 PIM.

When the playoffs rolled around that year, Hunter proved why he was known as “Big Game” Hunter. Prior to Hunter’s arrival in DC, the Capitals had never won a best-of-seven playoff series. Washington opposed Philadelphia in the first round. The teams split the first two games at USAir Arena. The Flyers won the next two to take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series.

Hunter set the tone right away in Game 5. A mere 35 seconds into the game, he engaged Philadephia’s Rick Tocchet in a fight. The Caps scored the first two goals of the game and never looked back, winning 5-2. The Caps faced elimination again in Game 6, this time at the hostile Spectrum in Philadelphia. By the middle of the second period, Washington held a 4-0 lead and was on its way to a 7-2 victory. With less than a minute remaining in the one-sided game, Hunter and Tocchet tangled again. Game 7 would be at USAir Arena.

Philly’s Tim Kerr scored first in the decisive game. When Brian Propp and Mark Howe followed with early second period strikes, the Caps were down by three. Hunter set up Garry Galley to put the Caps on the board. Kelly Miller and Kevin Hatcher each scored second period goals to draw the Caps even. At 5:19 of the third, Hunter scored the go-ahead goal—his fourth of the series—on a Capitals power play. But Brad Marsh tied it for the Flyers and the two clubs headed to overtime. The next goal would win the series.

Nearly six minutes into the extra session, the puck was in the Caps’ zone along the right wing boards. Scott Stevens chipped it up to Larry Murphy. As soon as he saw Murphy about to collect the puck, Hunter turned toward his blueline and skated toward the red line. Murphy, under some pressure from the Flyer forecheck, saw Hunter’s break out of the corner of his eye. Murphy slid the puck toward center and Hunter, never the fleetest skater on the ice collected it at full stride and split the Flyer defense. Hunter rumbled in on Philly netminder Ron Hextall and held the puck, waiting for the goalie to make a move. When Hextall did move, he created a small five-hole opening. Hunter wrested the puck into the daylight between Hextall’s legs. Goal. Game, set, series. And instant and unbridled bedlam at USAir Arena. Instantly and for a lot of years afterward, this was the crowning moment in franchise history.

It was the fourth overtime goal of Hunter’s playoff career. Only one man—the great Maurice “Rocket” Richard—has scored more. The Caps lost to the upstart New Jersey Devils in the next round, but there would be more playoff heroics in Hunter’s future.

The Capitals struggled in 1989-90, costing coach Brian Murray his job. Brother Terry Murray stepped in behind the bench, and the Caps responded. The Caps went 18-14-2 under Terry, finishing two games below .500 overall. But the playoffs are a whole new season.

The Caps exacted revenge in the first round, dumping the Devils as payback for their ouster two years earlier. In the second round the Caps took it to the hated Rangers, beating them in five games. John Druce was the hero, scoring nine goals (two game-winners) in the five game series. Hunter assisted on three of Druce’s goals and added one of his own. The Caps were headed to the conference finals for the first time in their history. The Caps were swept by Boston in that series. Hunter totaled 12 points in 15 games.

Hunter came up large again in the 1993 playoffs, although the Caps were eliminated after the first round. He had a two-goal game, a hat trick in a losing cause and scored the first goal in the decisive Game 6. Unfortunately, Hunter will mainly be remembered for checking the Isles’ Pierre Turgeon from behind after Turgeon’s goal gave New York an insurmountable lead. His frustration, while inexcusable, was certainly understandable. He had scored seven goals and eight points in the six-game set.

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