SILENCING their many critics en route to their first Stanley Cup final appearance in 20 years has been a point of pride for the Washington Capitals.
But to be honest, not all of the doubt was external.
General manager Brian McClelland admitted he had some serious trepidation about the 2017–18 Capitals even before the season. Salary-cap concerns meant saying goodbye to familiar veterans Karl Alzner and Justin Williams, plus trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk. And Washington lost key defenseman Nate Schmidt to Vegas in the expansion draft.
Rather than dismantling the team, McClelland decided to roll the dice one more time. But of equal concern was the Capitals’ psyche after yet another disheartening playoff loss to the rival Pittsburgh Penguins. When his team stumbled to a 10–9–1 start, McLelland’s fears seemed to be justified.
“People were expecting us not to make the playoffs,” McClelland said Friday at the Capitals’ Kettler Iceplex. “The people upstairs thought we had a better team than we were getting credit for. [But] the mental aspect was a major concern. ... After the first 20 games, I was thinking, ‘It’s not gonna come.’”
Rather than making any rash moves, McClelland decided to give coach Barry Trotz time to integrate several youngsters into a veteran team whose title window had allegedly closed.
December brought some improvement, but the Capitals staggered home on Christmas Eve morning from a dismal 3–0 road loss to the same Vegas Knights they’ll be facing in the Cup final, which starts Monday.
“I think everybody wanted to get home and see their families,” Trotz said. “They had toys to put together.”
After the break, Trotz began inarguably the best construction job of his 19-year NHL coaching career.
By tweaking his lines and pairing youngsters with veterans, he helped transform the Capitals from a “heavy,” powerful team to a slightly faster version. Youngsters like Evgeny Kuzentsov, Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana have given Washington a new dimension.
“Our big players have learned to play faster,” Trotz said. “That’s part of the adjustment smart players have to make.”
Trotz knew that transition would take time. Adding defenseman Michal Kempny at February’s trade deadline helped mitigate the losses of Schmidt and Alzner.
But it was more than getting new and old personnel on the same page.
Trotz had coached successfully in the Capitals’ minor-league system in the 1990s, leading Portland to the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup title in 1995. He was named head coach of the NHL’s Nashville Predators three years later, and when he faced his former employers, he developed an opinion that wasn’t totally flattering.
“They had a lot of ability, but there was inconsistency,” Trotz said. “... They always had good teams in term of talent, but we’d come here and they’d beat us 5–1—or we’d beat them 5–1. I thought they were more skilled, but at times, they could be outworked, You could push them out of games sometimes.”
That’s exactly what the Penguins did in previous playoffs. So did the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Philadelphia Flyers.
This edition of the Capitals has shown greater speed on the ice and mental fortitude. They didn’t panic after dropping two straight at home to Columbus to start the first round, or after losing three in a row to Tampa Bay.
Maybe it took four years for Trotz’s system to take. Maybe the Caps needed an injection of youth and speed. Perhaps they had to become underdogs after winning two straight Presidents’ Trophies, then exiting the playoffs early each time. And maybe Braden Holtby had to be benched to rediscover his goaltending mojo.
Whatever the reason, they’ve proven everyone wrong—including themselves.
Said Trotz: “They’ve proven what I felt and what I knew they had. They’re resilient, and they care for each other.”