Washington Capitals prepare for playoff pressure

Washington Capitals prepare for playoff pressure

LOS ANGELES – Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz didn’t get into specifics on how he’s trying to prepare his group for the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs.

“I want to keep it internally what we’re doing,” Trotz said.

Is it extra days off? Motivational speeches? Videos?

“I want to keep most of that internally if I can,” Trotz added.

The Caps are the favorite to at very least represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Final. They have the most points in the NHL with 103, a total of 13 more than the Dallas Stars – the next closest team. Washington has the league’s second-best best offense, scoring 3.18 goals per-game and the league’s second-best defense allowing 2.30 scores per-contest.

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Talk of the playoffs isn’t taboo around the Caps. But the team won’t give details about any of their plans on postseason preparation. That’s because the Capitals, an organization that’s seen a fair share of playoff flameouts, have yet to show they’ve mastered the ability of going into the playoffs on top of their game. They know what's at stake and they're still trying to figure out how to handle their position without adding to the burden of expectation.

“We’ve talked about it in here where a handful of us have had big leads in the regular season and you kind of rest guys and take your foot off the gas down the stretch and all of a sudden you think you can just turn the switch on,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “A lot of times when you get matched up against that eighth-place team that has to work their ass off just to make the playoffs and has all that momentum coming in, that can really set you up for that huge letdown.”

In 2009-10 the Capitals finished with 121 points – eight more than the second-place San Jose Sharks – and were beat in seven games in the first-round of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens. In 2008-09 they had 108 points – the fourth-most in the league that year – and lost in the second-round of the playoffs.

The only two times the organization made it past two rounds was 1989-90 and 1997-98.

“Every time you lose in the postseason you have to learn from it. It’s all experience and hopefully something positive you can take from it,” center Nicklas Backstrom said.

Though there’s stress amongst Caps followers about past disappointments, this year’s team is different than prior squads, especially the 2009-10 team, which was arguably the best team in Caps history up to this year.

That group was in the bottom half of the NHL in goals allowed at 2.77. They were top heavy with offensive players, led by Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green and weak in goal with Jose Theodore and a young Semyon Varlamov.

They didn’t have the two-way balance of this team, again led by Ovechkin and Backstrom, but supplemented with grittier performers like Justin Williams, Orpik, John Carlson and T.J. Oshie.

They didn’t have the young depth like this group with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. And they also didn’t have Braden Holtby, arguably the top goaltender in the NHL this season.

“It’s just all around, I think everything from goaltending, defensemen, we have a lot of depth on this team and in this organization,” said forward Jay Beagle who has been with the Capitals since 2008. “It’s a pretty special thing when you have that much depth. It doesn’t come around that often when you’re so deep in your lineup and in the organization.”

Though Trotz is one of the more proven coaches in recent Capitals history, he’s also untested to some degree. In his coaching career, he’s never gone further than the second-round of the playoffs. His 2012 Nashville Predators team was arguably the most balanced of his groups there, and that team was upset in five games by the Phoenix Coyotes in the postseason’s second round.

Trotz has always known which buttons to push as a regular season coach, but he’s never figured out how to manage a team far into the playoffs at the NHL level.

He won the AHL’s Calder Cup as head coach of the Portland Pirates in 1993-94 and then made the Calder Cup Final with the Pirates in 1995-96. That’s the last time he’s gone deep in a postseason. Trotz has often pointed out that he’s trying to make new history with the Capitals, but he also needs to exorcise how own playoff demons to a degree, along with his organization’s.

“The old history is old stuff, it’s past and I think it has no real relevance on the team and the players,” Trotz said. “It has more relevance on the fan and the media because it’s something to talk about but it’s not something we really live. It’s made a big deal but it’s not a big deal.”

Really there’s no way to know how the Capitals will perform in the playoffs until they get there. For the last month of the regular season it’s all about trying to find different ways to stay motivated in order to lessen the risk of any issues in the postseason.

“Especially that last 10 games is where you can really start developing good habits and gaining some momentum because how you finish the regular season has a big carryover to how you play in the playoffs,” Orpik said.

There are some warning signs for this team. The Caps are mediocre at the beginning of games, being outscored 53-48 in the first period. Giving up the first goal can put the best of teams on the defensive in the playoffs and Washington knows this.

“We’re not great starters,” said forward Mike Richards after his team gave up the first three goals in a recent 4-3 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings. “I guess we’re good closers but we have to correct that. It’s not good to play like that. You can see how good we are when we play well so that’s something that has to be corrected pretty quickly because the season is winding down and then the real hockey starts.”

That loss to the Kings at very least showed the Capitals they can't start poorly against a top team and expect to win. If they had come back to beat LA, maybe they wouldn't have learned that lesson. Instead the game turned into a teaching experience for Trotz.

“We will take the second half of the game and say, ‘that’s what we need to do and the way we need to play.’ This group wouldn’t be satisfied with that effort in the first period for the whole game,” Trotz said. “We’re playing a very good team. The LA Kings are not going to let you come into their building and have an easy game. We took a while to engage into it and once we did we were fine. It was a good learning lesson and maybe down the road we can run into each other again. It’ll be a good reminder for us.”



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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!