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Barry Trotz explains why he believes this year's Capitals team is different

Barry Trotz explains why he believes this year's Capitals team is different

If you walked away from Washington’s Game 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins thinking to yourself, “same ol’ Caps, same ol’ story,” it’s not hard to understand why. This team has not made it past the second round of the playoffs since 1998 and have beaten the rival Penguins only once in nine postseason meetings.
 
Last year’s dream season in which the Capitals were virtually uncontested through the entire season as the top team in the NHL was brought to an abrupt end in the second round at the hands of the Penguins in six games. After another Presidents’ Trophy winning season, seeing the Caps lose Game 1 to Pittsburgh at home has already left many fans feeling despondent.
 
But that’s not how the Caps feel.
 
“We're in a different place,” head coach Barry Trotz said after Friday’s practice when comparing this team to last year’s. “I think we feel that we still can build on our game.”
 
In many ways, the Capitals were actually the better team in Game 1. Washington held a large advantage in terms of shot attempts (72-32) and scoring chances (41-15) and still walked away with the loss. And yet, despite dominating on paper, Trotz still felt his team had more to give.
 
“I think last year, we came at them real hard and go, what else can we do?” Trotz said. “I don't have that feeling this year. I know we can do more, we know we can do more. That's a great thing to have is we know we can be better, we know we can do more.”
 
“I could lie to you and say that, but I’m not,” Trotz added as he stressed to the media that his confident rhetoric was not simply coach-speak.
 
Despite what happened on paper, the game appeared to be very even as it played out. The big difference seemed to be that every mistake the Caps made ended up in the back of their net.
 
Trotz’s confidence was likely not simply a brave face to wear before the media, but necessary for his players as well. If there was a feeling from last season of “What more can we do?” it would be hard to shake that feeling considering the picture the numbers paint of a dominant Caps’ performance in Game 1. The fact is, if they continue playing the way they did, they will come out on the winning end more often than not. The difference will be cleaning up those mistakes that a championship caliber teams like Pittsburgh always take advantage of.
 
All three of the goals Washington gave up in Game 1 were preventable. The first came when Matt Niskanen pinched too far into the neutral zone off the opening faceoff in the second period. A turnover led to a 2-on-1 in the wrong direction. Pittsburgh’s second goal was the result of Braden Holtby getting a glove on a slap shot from Olli Maatta but not holding onto it, leading to a rebound opportunity that Sidney Crosby finished. The third came with Brooks Orpik high in the neutral zone. A stretch pass left the defense exposed and Kevin Shattenkirk went after Scott Wilson as opposed to staying more center to account for the trailing Orpik and a wide-open Nick Bonino.
 
In terms of overall play, there’s not much more you can do if you dominate the defending Cup champs. What they can do, however, is cut out those mistakes, prevent those preventable goals and not dwell on them as they go forward in the series.
 
“I think we've learned to go forward, I think we've learned to park things and that's what the change is, that's where we wanted to get to,” Trotz said. “I don't know if we're fully there or not, but we're going in that right direction so I'm excited about the rest of the series for sure.”

MORE CAPITALS: Holtby's history suggests he'll bounce back in Game 2

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Capitals could bring up Connor McMichael to be a 'black ace' for the playoffs

Capitals could bring up Connor McMichael to be a 'black ace' for the playoffs

When the Capitals head to their hub city to begin their quest for the Stanley Cup, they will bring a number of "black aces" in town.

Black aces are depth call-ups from the minor leagues who are used primarily as practice players throughout the postseason, but who can be available to dress in a game if the team needs. According to general manager Brian MacLellan, among the players he is considering as black aces this postseason is their 2019 first-round draft pick, Connor McMichael.

Bringing teams to hub cities to play the postseason is part of the NHL's return to play plan, but, in the interest of safety and risking fewer people to exposure to the coronavirus, the NHL said Monday it would limit teams to 50 people each. That's not just players, that includes coaches, PR staff, athletic trainers, equipment managers, etc.

In a video conference on Friday, MacLellan said the team had an initial list of the personnel to possibly bring to the playoffs and McMichael was on that list.

"We identified probably a little bit larger group than we're going to use," MacLellan said. "We got the roster number the other day of 28 plus unlimited goalies so we're in discussions now on how we want to use those extra players and what's the best way we can organizationally. We're talking about coaches about depth guys. We're talking about bringing in McMichael a little bit. So we have some decisions to make, but we still have some time to make those decisions and we'll make them when it's appropriate."

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McMichael had a standout season with the London Knights in the OHL, scoring 47 goals and 55 assists in 52 games. That was after an impressive training camp with Washington just a few months after getting selected 25th overall.

Before you get too excited there are a few things to note. First, because McMichael was on the initial list does not mean he will make the final one. Fifty people is not a lot and hard choices are going to have to be made to widdle the list down. Also, being a black ace does not mean he will play in the playoffs. In fact, it is most likely that he will not.

Young players like McMichael are often brought in as black aces for the experience, so they can see how the veteran players practice and prepare in the playoffs and learn from them. It sounds like that is exactly what MacLellan is hoping McMichael can glean from the experience.

"I think it would be great learning experience for Connor," MacLellan said. "He seems to be a guy that can pick up things from good players, from watching them, being around them. The feedback from him last training camp was he was engaged, he learned a lot from [Nicklas Backstrom]. He learned a lot from our veteran players. I think it takes a big leap for his development, just to be in that environment, to see how guys work, to see how guys practice, off-ice workouts, nutrition stuff, see our main guys doing it on a daily basis in a competitive environment. I think it would be invaluable for him."

But while it may not be the plan going in for McMichael to play, having him on the roster means that there is at least a chance.

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The timeline for Capitals players to return to D.C. remains fluid according to GM Brian MacLellan

The timeline for Capitals players to return to D.C. remains fluid according to GM Brian MacLellan

While we may know what the NHL season will look like when it returns, we still do not know when that may actually happen. But with restrictions continually evolving and beginning to ease up in many cities across North America, it looks like the league could transition to Phase 2, voluntary activities at team facilities, possibly sometime in June.

Because of Phases 2 and Phase 3, training camps could be on the horizon, and we may start to see more players begin returning to Washington in the coming days. Just what the timeline may be for those transitions or for the players returning, however, remains very fluid.

"We have people that are in contact with certain officials within the government," general manager Brian MacLellan said in a video conference Friday. "Most of our conversation is with the NHL, the executives at the NHL. Some of our players - a lot of communication with trainers and team doctors. I think that's where our main focus or my main focus has been. We're trying to comply with what we believe are regulations that are continually evolving."

MacLellan added he was "Waiting on direction from the league but trying to be prepared for whatever day they open it up for us."

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But even when the facilities open, that does not mean MacLellan is expecting everyone to be back anytime soon and acknowledged that the varying comfort levels of each player regarding the coronavirus would largely dictate who returns for Phase 2 activities.

"I think the level of comfort varies across the board, just like it would I think anybody else in society," MacLellan said. "Some players are very concerned. Some players, their comfort level's high and they're ready to go. The communication, a lot of it comes from trainers, team doctors, the PA communicates to players. There's a negotiation between the league and the PA on certain concerns players have. The player reps voice concerns of individual players. I think it's all over the map. I think our job is to listen to the experts, listen to the league, listen to the concerns of the PA and the players and try and create an environment that we can continue to move forward in."

MacLellan made clear the team would not force or pressure anyone to return for Phase 2. But after Phase 2 comes training camps. While Phase 2 may be optional, the training camps are not.

MacLellan said he wants the players to do what they are comfortable within Phase 2 and anticipates some will remain at their current location and time their workouts and two-week quarantine to be ready for the start of camp.

"European guys, guys coming from out of town, I think they'll filter in as we get closer to the July 10th, if that's the actual date for training camp, I think guys will try and time it where they work out at home, kind of schedule in their two-week quarantine and a little bit period to skate, and then go to training camp," MacLellan said. "I would assume that's the way they would approach it."

The current situation stands in stark contrast to the normally regimented schedule of the NHL and the offseason. There's no set return date for workouts, there's no set return date for training camps and there is no set return date for the playoffs. The world continues to grapple with a pandemic and MacLellan has to prepare the team to make a run at the Stanley Cup while also being cognizant of the players' health concerns and he has to do it all without knowing if or when the league will progress through each phase.

It's a confusing time.

MacLellan said the team was "Trying to do the best we can to prepare to open up the rink and to allow guys to work out, and I think most importantly, to allow guys to feel comfortable with the environment that we're creating, that they can come in and work out and are reasonably protected from being infected from the virus."

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