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Two-goal second period fuels Caps to the win in Buffalo

Two-goal second period fuels Caps to the win in Buffalo

The Capitals broke open Friday's game in Buffalo with two goals on their way to the 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres.

How it happened: After a scoreless first period, T.J. Oshie opened the scoring in just his second game back from an upper-body injury. Jay Beagle chased the puck into the corner taking two Sabres with him and leaving Oshie open in the slot. Beagle found him with a nifty backhand pass and he fired the puck into the back of the net. Later in the period, Evgeny Kuznetsov dangled the puck into the offensive zone and around the sprawling defense to feed Jakub Vrana on the doorstep for the tip-in goal.

Buffalo cut the deficit to one in the third period as Kyle Okposo tapped in a rebound past Philipp Grubauer for the power play tally. John Carlson responded just 2:17 later with a power-play goal of his own, as he fired a one-time from the top of the circle into the roof of the net. Marcus Johansson then added the insurance marker with an empty-netter.

What it means: The win is the Caps' third in 15 days over Buffalo, completing the season sweep. Washington has now earned points in 24 of their last 30 games against the Sabres and in six of their last seven in Buffalo. It is also the Caps' third consecutive win.

Backstrom scare: Nicklas Backstrom played 3:02 in the first period, but left for the locker room. The team PR told Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post that he was “being evaluated.” He returned for the second period. The team did not reveal any specifics as to what the issue was. He would finish with 15:32 of ice time for the game.

The first of many: Vrana's goal in the second period was the first of his NHL career. You can watch it in the video above. The 2014 first-round pick made his NHL debut on Dec. 1. Known for his goal-scoring abilities Vrana has played well since being recalled from Hershey, but eventually that needed to translate into points. It did on Friday and it came on the power play to boot.

End of the slump?: Kuznetsov recorded an assist on Vrana's goal giving him four in the past three games. The past three assists have all been primary. Kuznetsov had a very strong start to the game with three shots on goal in the opening period. For the season, Kuznetsov has only 13 points this season, but with four of those points coming in the past three games, it could signal the return of one of the Caps' top offensive weapons. Carlson also had an important night with his first goal of the season. As one of the top offensive playmakers on the blue line, the Caps' are much better when he is generation offense, especially on the power play.

Look ahead: The Caps return home to face the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday. Then they hit the road for two Metropolitan Division games against the New York Islanders on Tuesday and the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday.

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MacLellan: Reirden will get the first crack at replacing Trotz

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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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