Capitals’ Stanley Cup Final run is Trotz’s masterpiece

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This Washington Capitals team is a testament to people taking things for granted.

Think of all of the the achievements that were met, ridiculously, with a shoulder shrug:

  • Yet another Maurice Richard Trophy for Alex Ovechkin thanks to 49 goals. It will be his seventh such title.
  • Yawn: another division title, marking the eighth of the Ovechkin era.
  • Sheesh, they didn’t even win the Presidents’ Trophy this time around.

Hockey fans and pundits are probably also guilty of far-too-easily dismissing the brilliant work of Barry Trotz. Such things tend to happen for a bench boss who, much like the Capitals, never advanced beyond the second round before this magical run to 3-1 series lead in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

Maybe it’s too easy to forget the uncertainty Washington faced before Trotz took over.

Consider that, during the three seasons pre-Trotz, the Capitals missed the postseason once (in 2013-14) and failed to win a single playoff series. Perhaps it was easy to get lost in the “Pittsburgh Penguins curse” narrative and forget just how seamlessly they shot back up the ranks of the NHL. Washington won the Presidents’ Trophy during Trotz’s first two seasons – only to fall to the eventual champions – and owned the Metropolitan Division crown during his reign.

With the benefit of hindsight, this playoff run might honestly be the perfect way for Trotz to receive at least some of the credit he so richly deserves.

Seamless transition

There might have been temptation to dismiss Trotz’s achievements because of all the talent on hand. Capitals GM Brian MacLellan viewed 2015-16 and 2016-17 as the Washington’s two-year championship window, or at least its biggest window for breakthrough success, only to face heartbreak and a hangover.

But maybe those letdowns and fewer roster riches allowed for some focus, and the release of some of the tension of “Oh, but you have to win with this team.”

Despite losing Nate Schmidt, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams, and Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals maintained a high level of postseason success. While this postseason run has been about Alex Ovechkin turning back the clock, Evgeny Kuznetsov finding another gear, and Braden Holtby rekindling his Vezina form, it’s also spotlighted the structural genius of Trotz’s system.

Consider that:

  • The Capitals stood toe-to-toe with a strong possession team in Columbus to win that series.
  • Clearly outplayed the Penguins during that redemptive meeting in the semifinal round. Considering how lucky Pittsburgh’s Game 1 win felt, it’s fair to say that the right team – not just the fortunate one – advanced and justified it being called a “rivalry.”

  • Washington proved to be a riddle the Tampa Bay Lightning failed to solve, too. Andrei Vasilevskiy was able to help Tampa Bay steal some games, yet the Bolts failed to score against Holtby during the final two games of the 2018 Eastern Conference Final. The Lightning’s top line of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov generally lived off of the power play, as the Bolts had few answers for the Caps at five-on-five.

While the Vegas Golden Knights justifiably carry a “Cinderella” narrative with them, they also presented a fascinating stylistic challenge for the Capitals.

Through three rounds of the postseason, the Golden Knights have been able to create unyielding pressure on the opposition thanks to a ferocious forecheck and impressive team speed. Even the tight four-game sweep of the Kings was misleading, as Los Angeles was often hanging on for dear life, asking Jonathan Quick to carry a huge burden just to stay in games.

An experienced San Jose Sharks team was rattled early in their series via a 7-0 loss in Game 1, and Vegas kept rolling along. With all their waves of talent, the Winnipeg Jets never really found an answer for the Golden Knights’ gauntlet, falling in just five games.

Jonathan Marchessault and the rest of the Golden Knights’ top line made a strong argument that it was “for real” during the postseason.

The Capitals, in turn, made them feel a lot like Tampa’s top combo of Kucherov and Stamkos. Vegas had to feel a bit shackled and negated, not to mention frustrated. Some of that comes down to Washington’s talent, depth, and versatility. Still, it’s the Trotz blueprint that stands as the primary explanation for why the Golden Knights’ freight train approach screeched to a halt.

And, again, that unyielding structure is something people just came to expect from Trotz.

Beautiful hockey mind

Maybe we merely needed to see the game evolve to truly appreciate his work? The NHL is clearly (and from an entertainment standpoint, delightfully) turning to a more attacking, “modern” style. To some, it seems like coaches’ ability to kill all fun and offense hit a critical mass in recent years, and now it’s time for offenses to take over.

Trotz’s work stands as a counterpoint to that thought.

On the other hand, much of his genius is finding the right combination of offense and responsibility. Washington has shown an ability to be able to trade punches with the best of them when needed -Game 4 saw the adrenaline go through the roof, and the Caps were just fine, thank you – yet they’ve also thrived in the kind of grinding games people expect from the postseason.

Through some combination of design and necessity, Trotz has helped the Capitals transform into a hockey chameleon, and that versatility leaves them one win from the franchise’s – and coach’s – first Stanley Cup victory.

The beauty of it all is that Trotz is so widely loved and respected. His acumen and love of the sport can be seen in how he’d hold court with Nashville media, not unlike Herb Brooks going out of his way to teach sports reporters the finer points of hockey.

As you may remember, reporters including Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman wondered if Trotz said that he was on his way out of Washington during a handshake line chat with Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella.

That moment came as the Capitals were heading into the uncertainty that was another second-round series with the Penguins. There have been denials about that statement being made, but if there was a kernel of truth to such scuttlebutt, maybe the drive behind such feelings was that Trotz didn’t feel appreciated. Maybe he felt taken for granted.

(And, sure, there also might be a succession plan involving assistant Todd Reirden.)

Maybe such feelings leave the door open ever so slightly that, even if the Capitals win it all, Trotz might be somewhere else. It’s tough to imagine that actually happening, but stranger things have happened in sports.

Whatever the case may be, Barry Trotz has now earned the right to call his shot, and reminded us all of how brilliant he truly is along the way.

Now he just needs to make sure the Capitals don’t take that next win for granted.

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Golden Knights try to stay strong at home vs. Predators

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Nashville Predators and Vegas Golden Knights. Coverage begins at 10 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Predators enter the final game before the All-Star break two points behind the Winnipeg Jets for the Central Division lead and powered by the goal scoring efforts of Viktor Arvidsson.

Arvidsson leads the team with 19 goals despite playing just 27 games. He missed three games in November with a lower-body injury, and then in his return to the lineup, he broke his thumb which led to a 21-game absence. He’s currently on pace for a 40-goal season despite missing 24 games to injury. After scoring against Colorado on Monday, he has 11 goals in his last 14 games and is tied with Evander Kane for the NHL lead in goals scored (10) since the calendar turned to 2019.

“He’s the man. I’ve said it a lot, he’s the Energizer Bunny for our team,” said Ryan Johansen. “Every game, he brings it, and it’s contagious for our group. It’s evident when he’s going, our team’s going.”

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

Like last season, the Golden Knights are one of the best home teams in the NHL, though they have lost two of their past three at T-Mobile Arena. They’re 16-5-3 at home this season compared to 13-13-1 on the road. Offensive and defensively their game has been much better in Vegas as they’ve scored 3.29 goals per game and allowed 2.17 goals per game compared to 2.81 goals for and 3.15 goals against on the road.

Some of that goal scoring has come off the stick is the team’s leading scorer, Alex Tuch. His goal on Monday against his old team, the Minnesota Wild, gave him 16 on the season, surpassing his total from 2017-18. Tuch has recorded 39 points in 43 games this season after missing the first eight games in October with a lower-body injury. The production he’s provided so far helped earn him a seven-year, $33.25M extension, which kicks in next season.

Kenny Albert (play-by-play), Eddie Olczyk (analyst) and Pierre McGuire (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call from T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Nev.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Capitals look to end six-game slide vs. Maple Leafs

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the Washington Capitals and Toronto Maple Leafs. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Capitals would like to head into their All-Star/bye week break with a victory, but one against the Maple Leafs would be a big relief.

Entering Wednesday, Washington is winless (0-4-2) in their last six games and are coming off an entertaining 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks. They haven’t dropped seven straight since Jan. 2014, and before losing Tuesday night had been 22-0-0 when Alex Ovechkin recorded a hat trick.

Ovechkin is playing against Toronto, which means he’ll sit for their Feb. 1 game against the Calgary Flames for deciding to skip the NHL All-Star Weekend for rest. The Capitals will be eager to use a full-power squad to end the first half on a winning note.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

“The only way we’re going to get out of it is to get back to work,” said head coach Todd Reirden. “The only way we are getting out of this is if we work our way out of it, because that’s where you are really going to gain something as a team. If we would have won that game 6-5, it still isn’t the right way to play hockey. It’s great because we feel good because we got the win, but to trade chances, that’s not how we are going to have success and we know that doesn’t bring you long term gain.

“So it’s disappointing. We’re going to work through it [Wednesday vs. Toronto]. It’s not going to stop there. [Wednesday] we are going to come out and I’m expecting us to work as hard as we possibly can to improve in the areas that we’re not. But it’s not stopping there. It needs to be worked on. That was certainly a tough way to lose.”

While the Capitals look to right things before the break, so too are the Maple Leafs, who have won three of their last 10 games and have hit an offensive skid with only 24 goals over that stretch. They’ve lost their last four games at Scotiabank Arena and watched as the Tampa Bay Lightning have extended their lead in the Atlantic Division.

“I think we’re going through some adversity as a team and we want to get out of it as soon as possible,” said forward Auston Matthews. “Hopefully in the long run this is something good for us and we learn from it. It just seems like night after night, it’s little things that are costing us goals and ending up costing us important points. For us, we need to be consistent for a full 60 minutes.”

Gord Miller (play-by-play), Brian Boucher (analyst) and Ray Ferraro (‘Inside-the-Glass’ analyst) will have the call.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Injured Karlsson could still take part in All-Star Weekend

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

WASHINGTON (AP) — There is still a chance San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson takes part in NHL All-Star Weekend despite missing the final three games before the break with an injury.

Sharks coach Peter DeBoer says Karlsson went back to California for more tests on what the team is calling a lower-body injury. DeBoer didn’t have any further update on Karlsson before his team faced the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals.

”I guess it’ll all be depending on what those results are,” DeBoer said. ”I know he wants to play. If there’s a possible way that he can play without hurting himself, then he’s going to play.”

Karlsson is one of three Sharks players picked for the All-Star Game, which is being held in San Jose. Captain Joe Pavelski and defenseman Brent Burns were also selected to represent the Sharks.

DeBoer says Karlsson wants to take part in the skills competition Friday and the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament Saturday night but won’t risk making the injury worse.

”He’s going to make that decision with our doctors,” DeBoer said. ”If he can’t do any more damage, I know he wants to play in the game. I’m sure the organization would love him in the game. If there’s more damage to be done, no one in their right mind would play. So I think it’s pretty simple.”

Karlsson is in his first season with the Sharks after they acquired him in a trade from the Ottawa Senators, and he’s set to be a free agent this summer. The 28-year-old two-time Norris Trophy winner has three goals and 40 assists in 47 games this season with San Jose.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Skills will take place on Friday, Jan. 25 (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN) and the 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be on Saturday, Jan. 26 (8 p.m. ET, NBC).

MORE:
NHL reveals 2019 All-Star Game rosters
Pass or Fail: NHL’s eco-friendly 2019 All-Star Game jerseys
NHL announces 2019 All-Star game coaches

PHT Morning Skate: Leafs, Matthews talking extension; Seattle wants to be perfect franchise

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• The Toronto Maple Leafs and Auston Matthews‘ camp have had productive conversations regarding a contract extension. (NHL.com)

• Speaking of the Leafs, GM Kyle Dubas could learn a thing or two from a few of his colleagues around the NHL. (Maple Leafs Nation)

• The trade to Calgary has turned around Elias Lindholm’s game and helped turn him into a complete player. (Sportsnet)

• The San Jose Sharks should be a serious Stanley Cup contender, but they have one big flay that may hold them back. (The Hockey News)

• Panthers forward Mike Hoffman sat down for a Q & A with NHL.com. He discussed his departure from the Sens and much more. (NHL.com)

• On the Tampa Bay Lightning and the routine of using smelling salts. (Tampa Bay Times)

• How is Seattle planning to become one of the model franchises in the NHL? ESPN takes a deeper look. (ESPN)

• Former Canadiens player and coach Guy Carbonneau doesn’t think the team will be able to fix their 31st ranked power play quickly. (Montreal Gazette)

• A look at the defensive turnaround of the New York Islanders. (The Point))

• In helping the St. Louis Blues get going in the right direction, Craig Berube has gone back to basic. (St. Louis Gametime)

• Did the Carter Hart era begin too soon? (Broad Street Hockey)

• The Boston Bruins just can’t stay healthy this season. (WEEI)

• Travis Green’s case for the 2019 Jack Adams Award. (The Canuck Way)

• If a team wants to acquire Chris Kreider for the Rangers, they’ll have to make them a perfect offer. (New York Post)

Kris Letang has been really, really, really good for the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. (Pensblog)

• The ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs are looking for a new owner. (Jewels from the Crown)

• With the trade deadline getting closer, the Oilers will have some interesting decisions to make. (TSN)

• Some members of the Bruins tried their hand at a Boston accent:

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.