Barry Trotz doesn’t have a social media presence, but the coach is certainly aware of what’s being said about his Washington Capitals. And, well, it’s a lot different than the past two years.
“I look around right now and everybody’s, ‘We want to play the Caps,'” Trotz said. “You hear it in all the little Twitter sites and all that. I’m like, ‘Okay. Someone’s got to play us.’ They all want to play us; not everybody can.”
After two years of entering the postseason as a Stanley Cup favorite, back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy winners with the NHL’s best regular season record, the Capitals are embracing a new role as underdogs with the playoffs just two weeks away.
That role, however, is relative. Washington is poised to finish first in the Metropolitan Division again, and the team has won nine of its past 10 games. But after repeated second-round postseason exits, disappointing results for Capitals teams that, on paper, were more talented than this one, the hype train has moved on to upstart Vegas or last season’s Stanley Cup runner-up, Nashville, or powerhouse Tampa Bay.
Under the radar for a change, the Capitals are relieved.
“The crown gets pretty heavy when you’re carrying it for the regular season,” Trotz said.
“I think there was some external pressure that creeped in the room,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I think maybe as a veteran group, you probably don’t want to admit that it affected us. I think at the time, it definitely did. … More enjoyable to talk about it this year than the last couple years.”
General Manager Brian MacLellan had called the past two seasons Washington’s all-in, go-for-it window, contracts aligning just right for the Capitals that they could assemble deep teams to contend for the organization’s first championship. The first year, Washington ran into a second-round buzz saw in the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had more speed and skill in the bottom of their lineup. The Capitals adjusted the following summer, but playing the Penguins in the second round again last season, Washington once more fell to the club that eventually hoisted the Stanley Cup. Contracts were up, and a tough summer awaited.
MacLellan’s offseason moves were largely criticized, as Washington’s top-ranked defense was shredded when Nate Schmidt was swiped in the Vegas expansion draft and Karl Alzner and Kevin Shattenkirk walked in free agency. Big contracts for Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie created a salary cap crisis, so top-six winger Marcus Johansson was traded to New Jersey, just days after fellow top-six winger Justin Williams signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Those departed players were replaced by younger or cheaper ones, and in an about-face under Trotz, four rookies were regularly in the lineup.
“A lot of you guys thought with the moves we made and didn’t make, we were going to struggle to make the playoffs,” Orpik said. “A lot of people probably didn’t have as high of expectations for us as they did the past couple of years. With the roster we had the past couple of years, we had real experienced teams. That created a lot of pressure on us that maybe wasn’t real healthy for this group. I think this year has been a lot more enjoyable for the group, just having less expectation on us and less pressure. Flying under the radar for this group is maybe something that’s welcome.”
Before the Capitals played the Maple Leafs in the Stadium Series game at the Naval Academy earlier this month, Trotz was surprised to realize his roster was younger than Toronto’s, considered a youthful club with stars Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner all 21 or younger. Considering the Capitals had two rookie blue-liners playing significant minutes all season, Washington arguably overachieved to win the division for a third straight year, but perhaps relative to the standard the Capitals had created with dazzling regular seasons, this one didn’t feel as impressive. Meanwhile, teams such as the Winnipeg Jets, Vegas Golden Knights and Boston Bruins garnered more attention because they’d exceeded lower expectations. But Washington was never concerned with winning a third straight Presidents’ Trophy.
“The last two years we were on top of the league and we win Presidents’ Trophy and everybody thought we were going to be unstoppable in playoffs, but we [weren’t],” captain Alex Ovechkin said. “I hope right now everything is going to calm down before the playoffs around us. We’re going to do our thing, and we’re going to have success.”
Should the Capitals advance to the second round again, especially if they’re matched against the Penguins for a third straight year, the spotlight will return. The talk of past playoff failures and how this particular group of Capitals has never been to a conference final and the shrinking window for the aging superstar core will be as loud as ever. But this time, Washington may feel like it has nothing to lose.
“We have one goal, and that’s getting ourselves into the playoffs,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. “And then we’ll go from there. If you look at our playoff records and how we’ve been, it can’t get any worse.”
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