- The Washington Times - Monday, April 13, 2015

Karl Alzner perused the Washington Capitals‘ itinerary for their first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders and was struck by the level of detail and preparation that had gone into it.

Not only did Alzner learn when he’d need to be at the rink, when practice would start and when the team would travel to Long Island, but he could browse the travel schedule, find out where players were staying and note, in detail, what they’d be fed at the hotel and at the arena.

“It doesn’t seem like there’s any stone unturned right now, and I’m very impressed by that — and thankful, because that’s going to give us the opportunity to feel great every game,” Alzner said.

As the Capitals return to the postseason for the first time in two years, they do so under a new coach, Barry Trotz, who’s not at all unfamiliar with the demands of playing late into April. Trotz steered his previous team, the Nashville Predators, into the playoffs seven times in his 15 seasons, and though he only advanced past the first round twice, achieving a career playoff record of 19-31, that repetition is more than the Capitals have had with any of their coaches in recent seasons.

Adam Oates guided Washington into the postseason in 2012-13, his first season as its coach, then was fired after the team missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years last spring. Dale Hunter took over the Capitals‘ coaching reigns six weeks into the 2011-12 season and helped them advance to the second round, but he, too, was a coaching neophyte.

Not since Bruce Boudreau oversaw Washington’s playoff run in the spring of 2011, his fourth with the team, have the Capitals had a man behind the bench who knows what it’s like to be able to adapt to the challenges that a postseason can provide.

“Experience comes into play, really, when you hit adversity and you hit momentum swings,” said left wing Brooks Laich, who has been with the Capitals since their qualifying for the postseason became an annual tradition in 2008. “That’s when you really, I think, find out how people handle situations.”

When Trotz was hired to replace Oates as the Capitals‘ coach last May, he installed a system that placed a greater emphasis on playing heavy — a defensive-oriented game that has often been lauded as a model that can hold up well during the postseason.

The scheme never got Trotz very far in Nashville, but as he has pointed out frequently when comparisons have been drawn, he never had top-shelf offensive weapons, like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, on any of those teams.

A meshing of the two models has, so far, worked well for the Capitals, who were eager to embrace a more traditional style of play after two years of high-octane, occasionally lopsided hockey. And, when it comes to the postseason, they’re confident Trotz will be able to snap them back into place should they drift away from the structure of their preferred playing style.

“His message carries weight,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He’s easy to like as a person, and you have a lot of respect for the things that he says and the way he wants a team to play. I think he’s been good at holding guys accountable when they stray off that way of playing, and as the year’s gone on, everybody’s bought in, and it’s been better and better as we’ve gone.”

The game itself doesn’t change in the playoffs, but some of the fine-tuning can. Players went into intensive film sessions for the first time on Monday, having taken Sunday off following the end of the regular season, and expected to be more than refreshed on the nuances of the Islanders — a team they played four times this season, with the home team winning both games.

“It’s being able to change on the fly and dropping something if it’s not working and adding things to key on certain scenarios,” Alzner said. “[Coaching] can really shift a series — shift a game, even, if you catch things at the right time. It’s hard when guys aren’t going. You don’t have to let them work out of things. You have to do what you have to do to get the team back and get the play back. A well-executed play by the staff can help big-time.”

Trotz said the coaching staff wouldn’t go about making “systematical changes,” but, without going into specifics, said that it would tinker with responsibilities and technique to a degree that opposing players’ strengths would be mitigated. With regard to the Islanders, that could mean attempting to stop a transition game that, led by center John Tavares, a Hart Trophy candidate, has been their strength.

Washington understands the urgency of the situation presented in a best-of-seven series. If one player isn’t playing well, an adjustment will be made to make sure that person isn’t the weak link for long.

Having the resolve to make those changes, and the experience to recognize them, could be the difference between playing in the next round and heading home.

“You’re not allowed any slides, so what we talked about this morning, if you’re not playing well, you have to go with who’s playing well right now,” Laich said. “There’s no leashes here. There’s no free ice for people to find themselves. It’s a results time of year. That’s already been mandated right now.”

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