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Despite success, Barry Trotz still finding ways to improve the team and the players are listening

Despite success, Barry Trotz still finding ways to improve the team and the players are listening

Tuesday’s win over the Carolina Hurricanes had a very familiar feel to it for the Caps. It was yet another commanding performance at home in which Washington was able to establish control early then pour it on late as the game spiraled out of control for the opponents. The win was Washington’s tenth straight at home. It was the ninth straight time the team scored five or more goals at Verizon Center and it was the fifth time in those 10 wins that the opponent was shutout.

Things have been going so well lately, the media is running out of new questions to ask.

“I feel like we’ve been talking about this a lot lately,” Marcus Johansson said when asked about depth scoring as everyone has been asked throughout this stretch.

But winning as impressively as the Caps have done of late is not without its challenges. For head coach Barry Trotz, he still must critique what he sees, fix the holes that he finds and convey his message in a way to make sure it does not fall on deaf ears.

RELATED: Caps extend home dominance to 10 straight wins

It’s easy to ignore the coach when things are going so well, but no game is perfect as Trotz stressed after Tuesday’s blowout win.

“I didn’t like our second period,” he said. “Just too much risk in our game. We’re giving up odd man rushes, just sloppy and not securing the puck. They had a couple guys in front of our net and the D were gone, leaving the zone before we really had the puck secured. Just not managing it really, really well.”

It sounds like Trotz is nitpicking, but he’s not wrong. Washington held a 2-0 lead after the first period but could not build on that lead in the second. The issue wasn’t the offense, ti was sloppy play in the defensive zone.

For Trotz, who always stresses the importance of strong defensive play, the second period served as a teachable moment.

“When you have a 2-0 lead, you don't want it to be 2-1,” Trotz said. “It's not that we're going to go into a defensive shell or anything, it's just manage the situation correctly.”

But how do you get that message across to the players given how this team is playing?

“I think they understand,” Trotz said. “I think they enjoy the fact that we can make plays, we can score goals, but I think they know that they take pride and responsibility to each other to defend well and they know that if they defense well they're going to have the puck more.”

That’s not just coach speak, the players echoed that sentiment about never being satisfied.

“We keep playing because we want to keep getting better,” Johansson said. “We're all competitive in here. Really competitive and that's one of our strengths I think.”

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to worry about the players taking their foot off the gas or tuning out the coaches because of the team’s success. It’s happened before to many teamsnot just in hockey, but in every sport. What makes this team different, says Trotz, is that the recent stretch hasn’t made coaching the players more difficult, it’s actually had the opposite effect because the team is seeing the results of its hard work night in and night out.

“Really once you start seeing on the ice where you're good defensively and you get the puck more, it's an easier game for you,” Trotz said. “You get more offense out of it, then it's an easy sell.”

MORE CAPITALS: Kuznetsov scores Caps' 2nd goal in less than a minute

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Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

Backstrom the catalyst behind Capitals' trip to the edge of advancement

WASHINGTON — It had been nine years since Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom last had a four-point game in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

That was a different time, an era when Backstrom and his teammates too often faltered under the weight of enormous expectations.  That’s all gone now. There is a Stanley Cup banner hanging in the rafters at Capital One Arena to prove it. Now they can all just play. 

With teammate T.J. Oshie hurt and likely out for the season, Backstrom continued to raise his own game in Game 5 of a first-round playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes. He had two goals and two assists in a 6-0 thrashing as Washington took a 3-2 series lead and pushed the Hurricanes to the brink of elimination. Alex Ovechkin added a goal and two assists.  

Backstrom’s last four-point playoff games was April 17, 2010. He had a hat trick that night and scored the game-winning goal in overtime. 

“That was probably Montreal, right?” Backstrom said before confessing. “Yeah, Ovi told me. He remembers everything.”

Those were darker days. The Capitals blew a 3-1 series lead against Montreal that year and maybe the best team of the Ovechkin era went out in the first round despite winning the Presidents’ Trophy. No wonder Backstrom needed help remembering. 

There is no such issue this season. The 31-year-old Swede is carrying the Capitals, who are one game away from advancing. It was his second two-goal game of the series. He has five total, which matches his career high for one playoff series set in 2010 against the Canadiens. He and Ovechkin, who has seven points in the series (three goals, four assists) set a tone and their teammates followed. 

"In all areas, too,” goalie Braden Holtby said. “Obviously they got on the point sheet, but their play away from the puck, on the forecheck, supporting each other, they're real tough to play against when they play like that and I thought they've been doing a great job all playoffs, too.”

Backstrom’s five goals matched what he had all last postseason when the Caps won the Cup. He missed games because of a broken finger, but still played in 20 and had five goals and 18 assists. He matched his total output of eight points in 2009 against Pittsburgh and 2018 against Columbus. His career best is again that Montreal series when he had nine points. Not that he cares about that now. None of the Caps do. If the production leads to wins and advancing to the second round, that’s all that matters.  

“It’s good for the confidence I think. But it’s going to be a different game in Carolina,” Backstrom said. “We’ve just got to regroup here and move forward. That was just a 3-2 lead. Toughest one is the last one. We haven’t been happy with the way we’ve played in Carolina so far. Let’s change that.”


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Braden Holtby’s new franchise record overshadowed by blowout win and he’s just fine with that

Braden Holtby’s new franchise record overshadowed by blowout win and he’s just fine with that

WASHINGTON – On a night in which the Capitals erupted for six goals against the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead, goalie Braden Holtby’s contributions were largely overshadowed. Nicklas Backstrom scored his fourth and fifth goals of the playoffs in a four-point night while Alex Ovechkin added a goal and three points of his own. Even Nic Dowd got into the mix as he scored Washington’s first penalty shot goal in playoff history.

When a team wins a game 6-0, it is easy to discount the contribution of the goalie and assume the offense carried the team. That was not the case on Saturday as Holtby played a pivotal role in Washington taking back control of its first-round series.

And he set a franchise record doing it.

With 30 saves, Holtby recorded his seventh career playoff shutout passing Olie Kolzig’s previous franchise record of six. Holtby now stands alone with the most postseason shutouts in team history.

But you won’t see him celebrating too hard.

“It means I’m getting old,” Holtby said.

Holtby may be the only goalie in the world who does not seem to care about shutouts. He has been consistent on this point throughout his career, always saying that shutouts only matter because it means he helped put the team in a position to win.

When it comes to individual accolades, however, Holtby is just not interested.

When asked what holding Carolina scoreless on Saturday did for his confidence, Holtby was blunt.

"Nothing,” he said. “It's a win. We regroup, we know they're going to come harder next game and we'll focus on that."

As focused as Holtby seemed to be after the game, was just as focused in it on Saturday as he turned in his best performance of the series. Despite the final score, the game was close halfway through with Washington clinging to a one-goal lead. Holtby was brilliant between the pipes, however, especially in the second period as Washington faced three straight power plays. He turned aside 15 shots in the middle frame alone to help the Caps keep their lead and eventually run away with the win.

“Our goaltender was tremendous,” Todd Reirden said. “Those things, if you can have the special teams and your goaltender at that type of a level then you're going to give yourself a real good chance to have success.”

The offense stole the headlines after Saturday’s win, but that’s a result the Caps do not get without Holtby’s record-setting performance in net.