Barry Trotz’s emotional return to D.C. will also have playoff feel

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Barry Trotz may want to treat Friday’s meeting with the Washington Capitals as “any other game,” but it will be anything but that as he returns to D.C. for the first time since the 2018 Stanley Cup Final.

The Islanders and Trotz will visit Capital One Arena for the first time this season, which is also the first time the head coach has been in the building since Game 4 of the Cup Final. Two days later the Capitals were celebrating their first championship. Two weeks after that Trotz resigned and later headed for Long Island.

It was a successful four years in D.C. for Trotz, who guided the Capitals to the most regular-season wins (205) in the NHL between 2014-2018. As he did for years in Nashville, Washington followed his lead with a strong defensive mindset, which was helped by goaltending coach Mitch Korn, that saw them allow only an average of 2.45 goals per game over that period.

Now Trotz and Korn are with the Islanders (Korn is the Director of Goaltending, while Piero Greco is the team’s goaltending coach) and the results have followed.

The Islanders are one of the NHL’s biggest surprises this season and the Trotz Effect has already taken hold. They have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (116) and are only averaging 2.52 goals allowed per game through 46 games. Greco and Korn have turned Robin Lehner (.934 even strength save percentage) and Thomas Greiss (.928 EVSV%) into a formidable tandem who offer confident options in net every night. 

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Listen to Capitals players, especially the veterans who played under Trotz all four years, and you’ll hear them talk about he changed the culture in that dressing room, about how he stayed relaxed no matter how high or low the situation, about his attention to details. That had a positive effect on his team — one that was so desperately seeking to overcome playoff ghosts. Nicklas Backstrom said he instilled a “never being satisfied” attitude. John Carlson noted how that as the Trotz evolved as a coach so too did his team, which resulted in a championship.

The things that Trotz brought to D.C. remain as his former associate head coach, Todd Reirden, now runs the Capitals’ bench. Another assistant, Lane Lambert, joined Trotz and Korn on Long Island, and he’s hoping that whatever video tribute that’s played Friday night also includes them.

This will the second emotional moment Trotz will have had this season involving his former team. Back in November, when the Capitals visited the Islanders at Barclays Center, he received his Stanley Cup ring and got to give a few words of thanks to his former players, along with Lambert and Korn.

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At the time, the Islanders were third in the Metropolitan Division. They remain in that spot and following Thursday’s win over the New Jersey Devils sit one point behind the Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets for tops in the division. As Trotz said, there was work to be done to put his new team on the level to what his old team accomplished, but the trend is certainly heading into the right direction. After joining his new team, he felt they could be in the playoff mix in the Eastern Conference but was unsure because there were many unknowns.

Now it’s a reality and with 36 games to go the Islanders have banked enough points to give them a bit of a cushion in the playoff picture. Balanced scoring, good defense, dependable goaltending — these are the marks of a Barry Trotz team. Friday’s game will have an emotional touch, but also a playoff feel for both sides.

“We see every game as a normal game and try to get ready as a normal game, whether there’s a former coach, there’s a playoff game, whatever” said Backstrom. “But obviously we all know what Barry’s done for us here as players and for us as a city. I think it’s pretty special. So I’m sure he will be well-received here [Friday], and he should be because he deserves it.”

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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.