Capitals

Lynx look to repeat as WNBA champs vs. Fever

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Lynx look to repeat as WNBA champs vs. Fever

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) For years, the Minnesota Lynx were irrelevant in the WNBA, a listless franchise that couldn't figure out a way to even make the playoffs let alone contend for a title.

Now they're looking for two straight championships.

The Lynx host the Indiana Fever in Game 1 of the WNBA Finals on Sunday, hoping to become the first repeat winners since the Los Angeles Sparks in 2001-02.

It's been a startling climb for a team that made the playoffs just twice in its first 12 years. But starting with the hire of coach Cheryl Reeve and the trade for hometown star Lindsay Whalen in 2010 and going right on through with the acquisitions of Rebekkah Brunson and Taj McWilliams-Franklin and drafting Maya Moore, the Lynx are suddenly the class of the league.

``When I was hired I knew we had a group here that there would be a window of opportunity,'' Reeve said. ``Once we made the trade for Whalen and we got Rebekkah Brunson in here, we knew we had a foundation. We added to that Maya Moore and Taj, so now there's that window of opportunity. It's just a great time to be a part of it.''

The group that also includes dynamic forward Seimone Augustus steamrolled through the playoffs last season. But the Lynx have found that defending that crown has been an entirely different experience.

The Seattle Storm pushed the Lynx to the limit in the Western Conference quarterfinals, missing a shot in the closing moments of Game 3 that would have eliminated them. The Lynx then had to rally in the fourth quarter to beat the Sparks in Game 2 to complete a sweep of Los Angeles to get back to the finals.

``Definitely tougher. You start off the season with a target on your back,'' Augustus said. ``I feel like this season we've gotten everybody's best game, from the last-place team in the league all the way up to the second- or third-place team in the league.''

Nothing figures to change now. The Fever have shown resilience throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs to reach the finals for the second time.

They were down 1-0 in each of the first two rounds before rallying, including a 16-point win at Connecticut in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals despite losing star scorer Katie Douglas early in the game to a left ankle injury. It is uncertain if Douglas, who scored 51 points in the first two games of the series, will be able to play on Sunday night.

``We're not afraid of anybody,'' Fever forward Eriana Larkins said. ``I think we play better with our backs against the wall.''

They've shown that so far. They faced elimination four times in these playoffs. Their 3-point shooting - the Fever hit 10 against the Sun in Game 3 - means they're never out of a game. And the swagger that comes with playoff success is evident.

``If we play like we did (in Game 3),'' Erin Phillips said, ``absolutely we can beat them.''

The Lynx had all of last week off, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Whalen is nursing a bone bruise on her left wrist and an injured finger on her left hand. Having two days off at the beginning of the week proved valuable.

``Nothing's come to us easy,'' Brunson said. ``We've had to grind out a lot games where I think we caught a couple teams by surprise last year. We were new. We were up and coming.

``But now everyone knows what we're doing, knows what to anticipate, knows what to look for. So they are giving us their best games. But we're here. We made it and that's the important part. We persevered through everything that anybody threw at us this season.''

Tamika Catchings and the Fever will throw a little more. The Fever lost to the Lynx in both meetings this season, but by just two at home on Sept. 14 and seven on the road three days later.

``They are the defending champs,'' Catchings said. ``We lost to them twice this year, but I think in the games that we lost we played really well for about 20 to 25 minutes and we let the game slip away from us for about the last 15 minutes. On this team, we have to focus on playing 40-minute games.''

Given the difficulties this season, a title this time might prove more rewarding.

``Once you win one, it's really hard to come back and win another one, especially back-to-back,'' Brunson said. ``The road is hard, but it would be extremely satisfying if we can go ahead and conquer this.''

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Follow Jon Krawczynski on Twitter:http://twitter.com/APKrawczynski

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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USA TODAY Sports

MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

Will Todd Reirden replace Barry Trotz as head coach of the Washington Capitals?

Based on what GM Brian MacLellan said Monday, it certainly sounds like it’s Reirden’s job to lose.

“We’re going to start with Todd here,” MacLellan said. “I think we’ve been grooming him to be a head coach, whether for us or someone else.”

“We’ll see how the talk goes with him and we’ll make a decision based on that,” MacLellan added. “If it goes well, we’ll pursue Todd. And if it doesn’t, we’ll open it up a little bit.”

MacLellan said he isn’t sure exactly when the interview with Reirden will take place. The front office needs a few days to regroup. It’s also a busy stretch in hockey’s offseason. In the coming two weeks, MacLellan will direct the NHL draft in Dallas, monitor development camp in Arlington and then call the shots when free agency begins on July 1.  

“We need to take a breather here but I think Todd is a good candidate for it,” MacLellan said. “I’d like to sit down with Todd and have a normal interview, head coaching interview. I think most of our discussions are just casual. It’s about hockey in general. But I’d like to do a formal interview with him and just see if there’s differences or how we’re seeing things the same and if he’s a possibility for the head coach.”

Reirden, 46, spent the past four seasons on Trotz’s bench. He was elevated to associate coach prior to the 2016-17 season after coming up just short in his pursuit of the head coaching position in Calgary.

Reirden’s primary responsibility on Trotz’s staff was overseeing the defense and Washington’s perennially potent power play.

Prior to joining the Capitals in 2014, he was an assistant coach for four seasons with the Penguins. And before that, he spent a couple of seasons as the head coach of AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Penguins’ top minor league affiliate.

A native of Deerfield, Ill., Reirden also had a lengthy professional career that included 183 NHL games with the Oilers, Blues, Thrashers and Coyotes.

Asked what he’s looking for in the Caps’ next head coach, MacLellan said he’s looking for a forward-thinker, a strong communicator and a players’ coach.

Reirden is all of those things.

“Someone that's up to date on the modern game,” MacLellan said. “Someone that's progressive, looking to try different things. Someone that has a good relationship with players. They communicate, can teach, make players better. It's becoming a developmental league where guys are coming in not fully developed products and we need a guy that can bring young players along because more and more we're going to use young players as the higher end guys make more money.”

One of the side benefits of elevating Reirden is the fact he already has a strong relationship with many of the current players, meaning there won’t be much upheaval as the Caps look to defend their championship.

“It could be a natural transition,” MacLellan said. “But once we sit down and talk face to face about all the little small details in the team, I'll have a better feel for it.”

MacLellan said a decision on the other assistant coaches—Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt and Tim Ohashi—will be made after the next head coach is named.

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Brian MacLellan explains the reasoning behind not extending Trotz before the 2017-18 season

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Brian MacLellan explains the reasoning behind not extending Trotz before the 2017-18 season

As shocking as the news of Barry Trotz’s resignation on Monday felt, it probably shouldn’t have given that whether or not he would return to Washington after the 2017-18 season was a storyline all year long.

Trotz entered the 2017-18 season on the last year of his initial four-year deal leading to speculation over whether the team was dissatisfied with his results and ready to move on from the head coach when his contract expired. Teams typically do not allow a head coach to enter the final year of a contract so that they do not appear to the players to be a lame duck coach.

Ultimately, that turned out to not be a problem as Trotz led the organization to its first Stanley Cup in his contract year. While there was interest from both sides in an extension in the wake of winning the Cup, ultimately a new deal could not be agreed upon and now the defending champs are without a head coach.

This begs the question, could things have been different had the team worked out a new contract with Trotz before the 2017-18 season? The answer is almost certainly yes, so how did things get to the point where Trotz was allowed to go into 2017-18 without an extension?

During a press conference with the media on Monday, general manager Brian MacLellan explained the team’s reasoning in not extending Trotz in the summer of 2017.

“We were struggling at the time to get over the hump,” MacLellan said. “We couldn't get over the second round and Barry hadn't been able to coach out of the second round yet either.”

In 15 seasons with the Nashville Predators, Trotz was not able to coach his team past the second round in the playoffs. In his three seasons with Washington leading up to the 2017-18 campaign, he had led the Caps to two division titles and two Presidents’ Trophies, but again could not get past the second-round hump that had plagued both him and the team.

Based on MacLellan’s comments, another early playoff exit would have likely led to the team choosing to allow Trotz's contract to expire.

“I think from the organization's perspective, some changes would've had to be made if we lost in the second round again,” MacLellan said.

But what if instead the unthinkable happened? What if the Caps forced Trotz into a “prove it” contract year and he was able to lead the team to the Stanley Cup? Didn’t they risk losing him all along?

Yes and no.

MacLellan confirmed reports on Monday that Trotz’s contract included an automatic two-year extension “at an increased rate” if he won the Cup. So while both sides were negotiating an extension, technically Trotz was already under contract through the 2019-20 season.

In the summer of 2017, MacLellan had a choice to make. At the end of the two-year championship window, he could choose to extend a head coach who had not brought the team the type of postseason success he was hoping for, he could fire a coach who had just won two consecutive division titles, two Presidents’ Trophies and whose team was eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, or he could ride out the final year of Trotz’s deal and, in the off chance the team won the Stanley Cup, still rest easy in the notion that Trotz would automatically remain under contract.

MacLellan went with option C. It almost worked.

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