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Caps, fans wonder what could have been

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Caps, fans wonder what could have been

NEW YORK – The pain was evident in the whispered voice of Alex Ovechkin.

It was evident in the long and painful handshake line, which remains one of the most poignant traditions in sport.

It was evident in the watery eyes of Joel Ward and in the heartfelt words of Troy Brouwer.

Yes, there was anger. Jason Chimera’s shattered stick, splintered on the cinderblock wall that leads to the visiting dressing room, was evidence of that.

But mostly there was disappointment, a genuine feeling that they could have and should have been preparing to play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Finals.

“Look at the trainers’ faces,” Brouwer said late Wednesday night in the quiet aftermath of the Capitals’ 2-1 overtime loss to the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “They’re just as disappointed as the players are. We’re a big family in here and we do everything together. Nobody feels worse than anybody else. Nobody feels more disappointed than anybody else. We’re all in this together … and now we’re not.”

Instead of exorcising the demons of their past – a past that includes 10 blown two-game series leads – the Capitals will spend today wondering once again how they allowed a 3-1 series lead slip through their gloved fingers.

How they were 101 seconds away from finishing off the Rangers in five games and failed to close the door.

“It’s hard,” Caps defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You rarely lose in the playoffs with your heads held high because you’re so frustrated. But at the same time, it was the best team in the league all year long pretty much and we had them close to elimination for three straight games. When you look at it that way you can be somewhat happy with that, but we think we’re a pretty good team and probably would have advanced.”

While the Caps lost the series on Derek Stepan’s fortuitous overtime goal in Game 7, which came after a Dan Girardi slapshot appeared to carom off he skate of Caps defenseman Brooks Orpik, they gave the Rangers the incentive they needed when Chris Kreider scored with 1:41 remaining in Game 5 at the Garden.

“Tonight is one you remember more,” Alzner said of the Game 7 defeat. “But that other one [Game 5] is the one you kind of look back on and think what could have been.”

That is the lament of Capitals fans who know disappointment as well as a family member. In their 40-year history, the Capitals have been to the Eastern Conference Finals just twice.

They know as well as anyone in the Capitals locker room – maybe even more – the dangers of allowing a team back into the series when it has one foot in the grave.

“I told the players, ‘Leave your best game out there and if it’s good enough you’re going to win [Game 7],” Caps first-year coach Barry Trotz said, “and if it’s not good enough you can walk out of here with your heads held high.

“We had 14 incredible games in our two series. They were very hard, very intense and we were that close in Game 5 here. We almost could have closed it out. Game 6 we got off to a little bit of a poor start [trailing 2-0 in the first period] but from there I thought we saw what the Washington Capitals are all about and I think you saw what the Washington Capitals are all about [in Game 7].

“There’s not much separating two teams going nose to nose. Just inches. A team winning was an inch here or an inch there. Everybody here probably predicted seven games.”

And that’s what they got. And for the sixth time in nine tries during the Ovechkin era, the Caps were on the wrong side of that post-game handshake line.

“It’s always painful,” Trotz said. “You’re going to look back at those moments.

“I mean, in Game 5, this is how the series went. I thought their goal was on one of their weaker chances. It’s a 3-on-4 and they really don’t have a play. They throw it towards the net and I think it goes off our defenseman’s heel, changes direction and finds its way in.

“That’s sort of the way it goes sometimes. In Game 6 we gave up a goal early but you saw the character. We made giant strides in our group in this series. I kept saying to the guys all year long that you learn different things from defeat and you learn different things from winning.

“In this situation, I think you can talk history all you want. This is a new group. This is a new team. Our organization is changing. We’re going to learn from our history and look it right in the eye.

“We went after this game. There was no nervousness on our part. We went after the New York Rangers in their own barn and almost pulled it off. I said to them all year that defeat is not your undertaker, it should be your teacher. We learned a lot. We’ve got some young kids that learned a lot and we’ve got great veterans, so you’re going to see the Washington Capitals back here again.”

And when they are, the Capitals may once again promise you the result will be different. But until you see, you will not believe.

It’s the cross Capitals fans have learned to bear.

[RELATED: Tough to pin blame for Caps Game 7 loss]

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A special night for Barry Trotz on his return to Washington

A special night for Barry Trotz on his return to Washington

WASHINGTON — Barry Trotz stood on an the unfamiliar visitors’ bench and scanned the rafters at Capital One Arena as the national anthem played. 

It had to be around here somewhere. He looked to one side of the scoreboard and then the other. Finally his eyes locked on the 2018 Stanley Cup banner hanging in the south end of the arena, a testament to a season he will remember the rest of his life. 

"I was just focused on the game. Until the national anthem, I didn’t even know where it was,” Trotz said. “I was looking on the other side, around the clock, and then I turn around and there it is. That’s a proud moment for everybody involved: ownership, Ted Leonsis, and [Brian MacLellan] in management, and the players and everybody, the fans. That’s the one you want.” 

Trotz could afford a reflective mood as he spoke after a 2-0 win against the Capitals in his first game back in Washington since leading the franchise to its first Stanley Cup last June. The Islanders broke a scoreless tie with two goals in the third period just 2:26 apart. They are the surprise of the NHL after losing star center John Tavares to free agency last summer. They are all alone in first place in the Metropolitan Division now well past the halfway point of the season. 

Trotz stayed focused before the game. He arrived hours before game time and holed up in his office trying to figure a way the Islanders could win the second of a back-to-back against the rested Capitals.

At the first television timeout of the first period, Trotz steadied himself for the video tribute the Capitals put together. There, on the giant scoreboard, the indelible images flashed: Trotz at his opening press conference in 2014, promising his new team had what it took to win a championship, winning the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year, laughing with his players, skating the hot laps during last year’s playoffs, lifting the Stanley Cup. The Capital One Arena crowd stood and roared for the entire break in the action.  

“My heart got full of all the good memories,” Trotz said. “I was looking up there. I was trying not to look too much because I was getting pretty close to that sensitive side of myself. But it was extremely well done and it was just great memories. Everybody was a part of something special.”

Afterward they had another mini reunion outside the Washington locker room, his home for four years. Trotz and Lane Lambert, his assistant for all four years with the Caps, chatted with players as they came out. It wasn’t as emotional as the championship ring ceremony when the two teams first met on Nov. 26 in Brooklyn. Trotz’s voice wavered as he addressed his former players before that game. This time was all laughs. 

Capitals assistant Blaine Forsythe was there and head coach Todd Reirden briefly stopped by. Tom Wilson and Matt Niskanen and Devante Smith-Pelly came over to say hello. Brooks Orpik, who had a memorable night of his own with a ceremony for playing in his 1,000th NHL game earlier in the week, leaned against a wall and chatted with Trotz and Lambert, who jabbed Caps goalie coach Scott Murray and said he better have a “hotter suit” the next time they meet, which will be in New York on March 1.

Maybe then the Islanders will have come down to earth or maybe Trotz is in the midst of another magical season. Maybe these two teams, with so much shared history, are destined to meet again in the Stanley Cup playoffs. 

“They’ve got the same team. They’re a good hockey team. There’s no question,” Trotz said. “They’ve got lots of mettle and it starts with their leadership and [Nicklas Backstrom] and [Alex Ovechkin] and that core group….That whole group, Johnny Carlson, all the guys that have here for a long time, they’ve got lots of mettle. I’m fortunate to have another great group to work with on the Island. As I said to them, I hope we can have the same experience down the road. It’s special doing that.”

 

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Barry Trotz returns to DC and hands the Capitals a fourth straight loss

Barry Trotz returns to DC and hands the Capitals a fourth straight loss

The New York Islanders outlasted the Capitals in a defensive battle Friday with two third period goals to hand Washington a 2-0 loss in Barry Trotz's return to Capital One Arena. The loss is now the Caps' fourth straight and knocks them down to third place in the Metropolitan Division.

Here are three reasons Washington lost.

Defense

You could definitely see the effect Barry Trotz has had on this Islanders team in this one. Last year, the Islanders were laughably terrible on defense. On Friday, they frustrated the Caps offense all night long.

New York was positionally sound all game long, forcing the Caps to the outside and limiting all of their offensive opportunities. Every time it looked like Washington had a rush developing, the Islanders got back and got in front of the puck. Every time the Caps tried to set up their offense, New York forced them to the perimeter and kept them from the high-danger areas. Thomas Greiss was there to clean up the rest as he recorded his second shutout of the season.

Washington was limited to just 19 shots on goal on the night, 15 through the first two periods.

A third period breakthrough

Braden Holtby looked very sharp for the Caps all night long in his first game since he suffered an eye injury on Jan. 12. He was finally beaten in the third period thanks to a great deflection by Josh Bailey.

Mathew Barzal showed some great puck control as he entered the offensive zone, wheeled around away from the initial defensive pressure, carried it to the high slot and fired a shot. By wheeling around, that allowed Bailey the chance to park himself in front of Holtby for the deflection.

In such a tight defensive game, you knew it was going to be an ugly goal like Bailey’s that would finally break through.

A third-period 2-on-0

John Carlson pinched into the offensive zone. When that happens, that means it’s Michal Kempny’s job to hightail it back on defense if the puck gets past Carlson.

Instead, Kempny tried to step up and to try to keep the puck in at the blue line. Cal Clutterbuck got the puck past him, and it was off to the races with him and Matt Martin on a 2-on-0. Clutterbuck called his own number and finished off the play with the goal to put the Islanders up 2-0.

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