Ben Raby, wtop.com
WASHINGTON - More often than not Sunday afternoon, Capitals coach Dale Hunter could look out on the sheet of ice at New York's Madison Square Garden and find a player he had coached long before any of them were earning NHL paychecks.
While Hunter's having coached Caps defensemen Dennis Wideman and John Carlson with the Ontario Hockey League's London Knights has been well chronicled, Sunday's game against the Rangers offered Hunter the chance to see three more of his former players.
Brandon Prust, who snapped a 48-game scoreless drought in the Rangers' 3-2 win over the Capitals, played for Hunter in London from 2002-05.
New York defensemen Dan Girardi (2005) and Michael Del Zotto (2009) also had brief stints with Hunter in the OHL.
"When they played for me," Hunter recently recalled, "Del Zotto was the offensive D, jumping into the rush and creating a lot of offense. Girardi was our shutdown guy -- he blocked shots and shut down people."
Girardi was acquired by London in 2005, joining a team that went on to win the Memorial Cup later that spring.
"Dale was a great coach for us," Girardi told WTOP. "We had a real old team, he gave us the guidelines and the game plan and he just let us play. He was good like that. He didn't say too much but when he said something it was obviously important and needed to be said. He did a great job handling all of us guys that year we won."
Girardi was never drafted by an NHL team, instead signing as a free agent with the Rangers in 2005. He has since emerged as one of hockey's elite shutdown defensemen, helping lead the Rangers to the top of the Eastern Conference this season.
But Girardi says that his career could have turned out much differently if not for his time with Hunter in 2005.
"I think that really jumpstarted my career," Girardi said of his experience with the eventual Memorial Cup champions. "Teams want guys that know how to win and can win those big championships even in a junior league. I think [Hunter] trading for me from Guelph was a big point in my career …Obviously it helped open some doors with the Rangers and now I'm here."
Girardi appeared in his first NHL All-Star Game last month and he leads all NHL players this season with an average of 27 minutes and 16 seconds of ice time per game. The 27-year-old is also fifth in the NHL this season with 133 blocked shots.
"Danny is a great shutdown defenseman and he blocks a lot of shots," Hunter said. "He was very good at it [in junior] and he's carried it over to the National Hockey League. Both [Girardi and Del Zotto] are kind of the same players that they were with me."
Del Zotto was an offensive-minded defenseman while playing for Hunter in London. Through 54 games this NHL season, he leads all Rangers defensemen with seven goals and 29 points.
"It was awesome," Del Zotto said of playing for Hunter in 2009. "They treat their players like pros and Dale has been through the ranks. He's played and so he understands how to treat the players. He was great for me."
Del Zotto, 21, was a secondary piece in a 2009 trade that also saw OHL MVP John Tavares land in London. But in 42 regular and postseason games with the Knights, Del Zotto recorded nine goals and 49 points and teamed up with John Carlson to form London's No.1 defensive pairing.
"[Hunter] is going to play his top guys, especially if they're playing well," Del Zotto said.
"But another great thing about him is that if you're not playing well and you're one of the big guys, he's not afraid to come after you and I think that's pretty important. You can't just let guys roam around and do whatever they want. They have to buy into the structure and buy into the team and he's not afraid to put his foot down."
Catch the Capitals and San Jose Sharks Monday at 7:30 p.m. Coverage begins with Caps Pregame at 7:00 on Federal News Radio, WFED 1500AM and online here.
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