- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Once word that the Washington Capitals had clinched a spot in the postseason reached Barry Trotz, the coach stood up from his seat near the front of the team’s charter flight and turned to address his players.

Hours earlier, the Capitals had defeated the Detroit Red Wings, 2-1, leaving them on the cusp of qualifying for the playoffs. A little help from the Toronto Maple Leafs, who defeated the surging Ottawa Senators in a shootout, pushed them through the threshold.

Trotz didn’t get very far down the aisle. The news had already spread among the players, and when they saw their coach approaching, several unleashed a hearty cheer, acknowledging their accomplishment.

“I think the plane goes up a little bit,” Trotz said on Tuesday morning. “There’s a weight of that [being lifted].”

Inclusion in the postseason isn’t unfamiliar to the Capitals, whose season will continue past the second week of April for the seventh time in the last eight years.

It does, however, bring a measure of restitution to a team that was angry, disappointed and pointedly embarrassed by missing the playoffs entirely a year ago.

“You kind of just want to disappear to somewhere on Earth where there are no televisions or Internet,” left wing Brooks Laich said. “You really feel alone. A season takes so much effort. You know, you start in June with your preparation, your offseason training. July, you start skating. August. Camp in September, and then seven months of the season or something … for all that work to go to nothing, you don’t make the playoffs, it feels like a wasted year, almost, in your life. You really feel disappointed.”

The Capitals overhauled much of their team following last season’s failure, jettisoning George McPhee, their longtime general manager, and coach Adam Oates, who lasted just two seasons, while giving their roster a moderate tweaking.

Left wing Alex Ovechkin said in September, when training camp opened, that the players who remained took that message seriously. It was “a wake-up call [that] said like, ‘Listen, we have to do something. You guys have to win or you guys going to be next.’”

Trotz, the first coach with NHL experience hired by the Capitals since 1997, recrafted the team, instilling the idea that playoffs were both a goal and an expectation.

As games ticked off the schedule, and the months turned March, then April, there was a growing confidence in the locker room that Washington would again have the chance to seek its first Stanley Cup.

“Teams started getting really hot that were around us, and fortunately for us, we got a chance to play them and try to win our way past them,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “But you always want to expect something big out of yourselves, and for us, step one is to expect that we are a playoff team and expect to win. That’s the goal.

“You don’t want to go in and say, ‘Oh, we hope to win,’ or, ‘It’d be nice to win.’ You have to win. You want to win. You expect to win. That’s what drives you. You set lofty goals and then reach for them. That’s the plan. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Two home games remain for the Capitals — on Wednesday against the Boston Bruins, then on Saturday against the New York Rangers. The Bruins, fighting for a spot in the postseason, have won their last five games. New York, with 109 points, has its eyes on the Presidents’ Trophy.

By winning out, the Capitals can finish second in the Metropolitan Division, guaranteeing them at least home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs. It could also steel them for a postseason run, which is why Trotz won’t aim to rest any of his players — including goaltender Braden Holtby, who has started the last 23 games, a team record.

“The caliber of opponents always pushes you to be better,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “They’re also teams that we might see in the playoffs if we want to come out of our side of the conference. If we can get a couple wins against them and have good confidence going into those series, that’s only going to give us more ability to believe in ourselves and know that we can beat these teams and go ahead in the playoffs.”

Last week, before embarking on the road trip, Trotz said he’d rather qualify for the playoffs with a victory rather than having another team do them the favor mathematically.

Regardless, the focus can now shift elsewhere.

“You’ve got lots of goals during the year, but in big-picture goals, first, you’ve got to get in,” Trotz said. “Then you can start reaching for some other goals. There’s some other stuff that, during the year, you want to accomplish, and I think we accomplished a lot of them … and got some foundations down and things that we can continue to improve on. Getting in is a first step.”

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