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Just a win away from history, Capitals treating business as usual

Just a win away from history, Capitals treating business as usual

LAS VEGAS — The Washington Capitals are one victory away from hoisting the Stanley Cup, but you couldn’t tell it from Wednesday’s practice at T-Mobile Arena.

Lars Eller performed the customary hot lap, much to the delight of his hooting and hollering teammates.

The energy on the ice looked the same as any other practice during this run.

The vibe in the room afterward felt familiar.

In other words, it was the same old steady, loose Caps. And that, according to a handful of players and Coach Barry Trotz, is a good thing as they get ready for biggest game in franchise history.

“Once that puck drops, it’s just another hockey game,” Tom Wilson said. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re executing the game plan and doing the things that have made us successful to this point.”

Trotz said his message to the dressing room ahead of Game 5 on Thursday night will be a simple one.

“It’s just one game,” he said. “You just focus on the next game. I can’t tell you want is going to happen tomorrow. But I can tell you that you’re going to need your best game.”

The Caps are exuding confidence right now. And why not? They’re finally doing what previous versions had failed to do: they’re playing their best hockey of the season at the most critical time of the year.

Consider this:

  • They’ve scored 4, 3, 3 and 6 goals so far in this series. The last team to average 3-plus goals in every Final game was the 1982 Islanders. Those goals have also been supplied by 11 different players.
     
  • Defensively, they’ve returned to the form they flashed at the end of the Tampa Bay series, which concluded with back-to-back shutouts. In fact, since allowing six goals in Game 1 (one was scored into an empty net), they’ve yielded a total of five goals in the last three contests.
     
  • And, perhaps, most important, Braden Holtby is outdueling Marc-Andre Fleury, who entered the Final as the odds on favorite to claim the Conn Smythe as the NHL’s playoff MVP. Through four games, Holtby boasts a .919 save percentage and a 2.52 goals against average, while Fleury is saddled with an .845 and a 4.08.

 

And, finally, the Capitals are confident because they are comfortable on the road. They’re 9-3 away from Capital One Arena this spring. They’re also 3-0 in clinching games, all of which have come on enemy ice.

To a man, the Caps are keenly aware of where they stand. They know the crowning achievement for a hockey player is now within arm’s reach.

But they also know it does them no good to look ahead.

Captain Alex Ovechkin joked that he’s been thinking about just about anything other than lifting the Stanley Cup over the past 24 hours to keep his mind from wandering too far ahead. 

   

“For me personally, I don’t try [to] think about it too much, what’s going on,” Ovechkin cracked. “I’m trying to focus on different things, but it’s hard.”

What kinds of things, Alex?

“Cars, hotels,” he said with a big smile, “Vegas.”

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The season pause gave Braden Holtby a chance to 'fix a few things' in his game

The season pause gave Braden Holtby a chance to 'fix a few things' in his game

No team can make it far in the playoffs without good goaltending. That's what made the news of Ilya Samsonov's injury so tough for the Capitals. Sure, they still have Braden Holtby, but let's face it, it's been a bad season. Does he even still have it in him to lead the team in the postseason? After three round-robin games, the answer is an emphatic yes.

In a round-robin in which there were seemingly few positives for Washington, Holtby was one of them. He was the team's best player in the round-robin and he capped it off with 30 saves on 31 shots against the Boston Bruins on Sunday, the team's lone win.

Holtby looks like a completely different goalie than the one who managed just a .897 save percentage and 3.11 GAA in 48 regular-season games and that's because he is. The pause to the NHL season allowed Holtby time off to reset his game that he would not have in a normal season and he took advantage.

RELATED: CAPS VS. ISLANDERS NOT ONLY 'TROTZ VS. REIRDEN'

"Put a lot of work in the last couple months and had to fix a few things and work on a few things over the break to strengthen up," Holtby said, "And every game we played here you get a little more stamina and more and more comfortable."

It is pretty remarkable that Holtby was able to improve his game as much as he seems to have done considering that for much of that time, he could not even get on the ice. Yet, as the team prepares for the playoffs, goaltending no longer seems to be an issue. The loss of Samsonov means that the team is in trouble should Holtby struggle or get injured, but in terms of the starting netminder, Holtby is once again the guy. While that may have made fans nervous in January, fans can now be comfortable with that considering Holtby is playing his best hockey of the season.

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Caps and Islanders coaches downplay the personal matchup in Stanley Cup playoff series: 'It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden'

Caps and Islanders coaches downplay the personal matchup in Stanley Cup playoff series: 'It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden'

As the Capitals and New York Islanders prepare to square off in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, all eyes will be on one matchup. It's not about the two goalies or how one defensive pairing matchups up against an offensive line, this matchup is off the ice. The storyline of this series is the men behind the bench, Todd Reirden and his predecessor, Barry Trotz.

Trotz was the head coach in Washington from 2014 to 2018 and led the Caps to the Stanley Cup in 2018. Reirden was on Trotz's staff as an associate coach in charge of the defense. Following the 2018 season, Trotz resigned and was hired as the head coach in New York, taking with him assistant coach Lane Lambert and goalie coach Mitch Korn. Reirden was hired as head coach of the Caps in the wake of Trotz's departure.

"It'll be a great challenge because I know the people over there," Trotz said of the series.

"Obviously we were able to accomplish something amazing together and that's something that you'll never forget as a staff," Reirden said. "That's never going to go away. It's unique now being on opposite benches and it has been."

When a team plays against its former head coach, comparisons between the two coaches are unavoidable. But even if the fans and the media look at this series as a commentary on the two coaches, the two men in question certainly do not.

"It's not Barry Trotz vs. Todd Reirden or any of those type of things," Reirden said. "It's going to be a team effort."

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They also downplayed any sort of advantage knowing each other may give them in the series.

"You've spent some time with a lot of their players, there's a lot of new players," Trotz said. "It just gives me a little insight on some of their tendencies, that's all."

The core in Washington may be the same, but there are a number of new faces on the roster who came after Trotz. The top-six on offense is the same, but players like Carl Hagelin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway and Nic Dowd all came after Trotz. Defensively, the team added Nick Jensen, Radko Gudas and Brenden Dillon.  Jonas Siegenthaler was in the organization, but did not make his NHL debut until the 2018-19 season.

RELATED: CAPS SECURE FIRST ROUND SERIES VS. ISLANDERS AFTER WIN OVER BRUINS

But even if they do not want to admit it, the familiarity between the coaches and players undeniably adds a different dynamic to the series.

The Caps know what kind of a coach Trotz is and how his teams like to play. Likewise, Trotz knows the level of talent on the roster in Washington so he knows the challenge that awaits the Islanders in the first round.

"They've got a lot of star power and they've won a championship," Trotz said. "They're well-equipped in a lot of areas, so the biggest challenge is to play them even and play them hard and they'll do the same because I know a lot about that group."

Trotz also added, "I think it will be a hell of a series."

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