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Secret handshake? Trotz fueling Regina pipeline

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Secret handshake? Trotz fueling Regina pipeline

Upon introducing himself to Capitals defensive prospects Colby Williams and Connor Hobbs, Capitals coach and fellow Regina Pats alum Barry Trotz extended his hand and said …

“He asked me if I knew the secret handshake,” said Williams, part puzzled and part amused by the question. “I guess that must have fallen through the cracks over the years, so I don’t know it. And he wouldn’t show me.”

Hobbs was just as perplexed, wondering if there is such a thing as a secret Regina Pats handshake.

“I didn’t have a clue and I kind of felt bad,” Hobbs said. “Maybe we’ll have to make a new one.”

Near the end of the 2015 NHL draft, the Capitals did something they had never done before, taking Regina defense partners Hobbs and Williams in the fifth and sixth rounds of the draft. With Pats alums Garrett Mitchell (sixth round, 2009 draft) and Chandler Stephenson (3rd round, 2012) already in the Caps’ farm system the Caps are starting their own pipeline from Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan and the former home of Trotz and Capitals assistant general manager and scouting director Ross Mahoney, who also played for the Pats before attending the University of Regina.

“That’s where home was for Coach Trotz for a bit and that’s where home is for me and Colby,” Hobbs said. “It’s the oldest junior team in Canada. Everywhere you look it’s Pats, Pats, Pats.”

Now, the same can be said of the Capitals’ development camp locker room. And that’s a good thing, according to John Paddock, a former draft pick of the Caps (37th overall in 1974) who has spent the past 30 years coaching or managing six different AHL teams and three different NHL teams and is now the had coach and senior vice president of the Pats.

“I didn’t talk to Ross or Barry, but the Capitals picked up two really good defensemen,” Paddock said from Saskatchewan. “I think they’re going to be happy they took those two guys.”

Hobbs, 18, is a hard-hitting, hard-shooting 6-foot-2, 191-pounder from Saskatoon who was taken by the Caps in the fifth round of the draft, 143rd overall. He began last season with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western League, but was seventh on the club’s defensive depth chart and was traded to the Pats on Jan. 4, his 18th birthday. He said his season took off after that, picking up one goal and 15 assists in 33 games while playing alongside Williams.

“If I didn’t get traded I don’t think I would have gotten drafted,” Hobbs said. “I don’t think I could have gone to a better spot than with John Paddock. It’s so perfect for me.”

Hobbs and his father were in the stands at BB&TCenter in Sunrise, Fla., when the Caps called his name, making him their second of three defensemen drafted that day, along with second-rounder Jonas Seigenthaler. When the Caps selected Williams, his 20-year-old defense partner, in the sixth round with the 173rd pick overall, Hobbs was elated.

“I was like, ‘What the heck?’” he said. “I thought it was so cool.”

Williams, who is more of a natural skater and puck mover than Hobbs, had been passed over in two previous NHL drafts and was in the midst of a 7K Spartan race on an Alberta ski slope when the Capitals made him their final pick of the draft.

Two hours later, when he re-established cell service, Williams said he retrieved a text from his agent congratulating him on being drafted, along with a phone message from Hobbs.

“I didn’t really believe it until my agent texted me and said, ‘Congratulations, you’re a Washington Capital,’ Williams said. “The feeling that came over my body was unbelievable.”

A 6-foot, 195 pounder from Regina, Williams said a lack of consistency had kept him from being drafted as an 18- and 19-year-old, but when Paddock took over for former Pats head coach Malcolm Cameron, Williams said his game turned around.

“I kind of had a rough two years,” said Williams, who recorded a career-high 11 goals, 30 assists and 95 penalty minutes in 64 games with the Pats.

“I had a different coach than I’m used to. He was hard on the guys about playing tough. I’m kind of an opposite player than that. It’s not that I’m not tough, but I play differently than how he wanted me to play. With John, he allowed me to play how I wanted to play and that helped me a lot.”

Paddock used Williams and Hobbs as his top pairing and said he was impressed with the way Williams took Hobbs under his wing.

“I think he epitomizes the kind of defenseman that is emerging more in the league,” Paddock said. “He’s a really good skater and a really smart player. He went from a plus-23 to a plus-45 while playing with a younger partner. I think that speaks volumes about the kind of season he had. He’s a bit of a late bloomer but based on last year I think he has a chance to play in the NHL.”

While Hobbs is ticketed for a return to Regina next season, the Capitals have the option of sending Williams back to Regina for one more season or signing him to his first pro contract and assigning him to AHL Hershey next season.

“I don’t think there’s a wrong answer to that question,” Paddock said. “Either way, it’s a win. If he’s going to play 12 to 20 minutes a night in Hershey that’s where he should be. If not, they know he’ll be with us and he’ll play 20 to 28 minutes a night. I think it will be beneficial either way.”   

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Alex Ovechkin's evolution as a player was on full display in Game 6

Alex Ovechkin's evolution as a player was on full display in Game 6

We all know that Alex Ovechkin is a world-class goal scorer. He is the best goal scorer of his generation and perhaps the best of all time. He tallied another two goals Monday in Game 6, but that’s not what really impressed head coach Barry Trotz.

While Ovechkin's career is full of highlight reel goals, it was the ugly plays that really caught Trotz's eye on Monday.

"[Ovechkin's] evolved in areas of his game," Trotz said after the game. "He’s not just at that dot. He’ll go to the front of the net, he’s not scared to do that. It’s just adding layers to his game."

Ovechkin's first goal of the game was not pretty. It won't make any Top 10 lists, it won't be shown throughout the U.S. and Canada. It was an ugly rebound goal...and it was beautiful.

Just four minutes after Nick Foligno tied the game, Ovechkin put the Caps back ahead with a rebound goal. He had parked himself in front of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and was in perfect position when Bobrovsky made a kick out save to backhand the rebound into the empty net.

Those are the type of plays we did not always see from the Great 8 and it didn't stop there.

As Washington tried to close out the game, Ovechkin went all out trying to help his team preserve the lead as he blocked a shot from Ryan Murray with less than three minutes to go.

"I’m probably as proud of him right at the end of the game blocking shots and doing that type of thing," Trotz said. "That’s full commitment. When that was necessary, that’s where you get your street cred with your teammates. You’ve got to block a shot when it’s necessary and get a puck out when it’s necessary. I’d probably give him more props on that than even scoring goals because that’s what you really expect of him."

Few expected a 32-year-old Ovechkin to rebound from a 33-goal season, but he did just that with 49 goals in 2017-18 to win his seventh Rocket Richard Trophy as the league-leader. The reason why was on full display on Monday. It is because he has evolved his game. Instead of relying just on the quick rushes, pretty one-timers and incredible dekes, he has committed more to getting to the contested areas and scoring those dirty goals.

That commitment on offense seemed to translate to the defense as well as he was there blocking shots with the rest of his teammates.

"Those are the necessary things, those necessary details that allow you to win," Trotz said. "If you don’t have them, then you’re not going to win."

MORE CAPITALS: Pens again: Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

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Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

Capitals to face Penguins in NHL Playoffs for third consecutive year

The Caps are headed to the 2018 NHL Playoffs Eastern Conference Semifinals to take on the Pittsburgh Penguins… again.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

Yes, for the third time in three years, the Capitals will play the Penguins, hoping to take down the defending Stanley Cup champions and advance out of the second round of the playoffs and to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since the 1998 season, when the team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.

The Capitals are riding momentum from their first-round series win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, where they fought back from an 0-2 series hole to win the series thanks to a 6-3 victory in Game 6 Monday night in Columbus.

That momentum coupled with home-ice advantage — should they choose to capitalize on that this time around — could create an ideal atmosphere for the Caps to take a 2-0 series lead before heading to Pittsburgh for Games 3 and 4.

A perennial problem, Sidney Crosby enters this series playing some of his best playoff hockey. In their 4-2 series win over the Philadelphia Flyers, the Pens’ captain scored six goals in six games, including a hat trick in the opening matchup.

But he’s not the only one creating havoc for goalies. Center Jake Guentzel is tied with Crosby at the top of the league in goals and points in the playoffs. The pair each had six goals and seven assists against the Flyers, as well as 17 shots on goal apiece.

Is it possible they’ll get stonewalled by Braden Holtby, who — despite not starting initially in the first two games for the Caps against the Blue Jackets — is rocking a 93.6 save percentage and ranks fourth in the league with a 1.66 goals against average among goaltenders who have played more than one postseason game.

If the Caps can find a spark in their offense with Holtby staying strong in goal, perhaps this could be the year they finally slide past the Pens.

However, history isn’t exactly on Washington’s side. In the second-round series from the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons, the Pens hold an 8-5 record over the Caps, eliminating them both years on their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Pittsburgh leads the Caps in the overall playoff game record, 38-24, and they’ve met for 10 series in the postseason, dating back to 1990-91. Four times the series was pushed to a Game 7, but the Caps never came out on top.

The one and only time the Caps have ever eliminated the Pens from the playoffs was in the 1993-94 season, when they beat Pittsburgh 4-2 in the first round before losing to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

But hey, this year could become the second time in franchise history the Caps take down the Pens.

The NHL has yet to announce when Game 1 of the Capitals vs. Penguins series will take place, but with the Wizards playing Game 6 of their NBA Playoff series at home on Friday, the likliest start date is either Thursday, April 26 or Saturday, April 28.