The smiling side of a handshake line at the end of the second round was a brand-new experience for Alex Ovechkin and Barry Trotz.
Ovechkin received a message of good luck and a pat on the chest from Sidney Crosby, while Trotz got to enjoy a happy moment with longtime coaching friend Jacques Martin. Ovechkin acknowledged he'd been in that position a lot of times — though never as the one moving on to the third round.
The Washington Capitals reaching the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 1998 is perhaps most special to the superstar captain and his coach who had never made it out of the second round before. No coach in NHL history had been behind the bench for more games than Trotz and no active player had been in as many playoff games as Ovechkin without reaching the conference finals.
“There is a kinship there, there's no question,” Trotz said. “I've been at this for a while and it's so hard to move forward sometimes. It's always thrown in your face everywhere your turn. I know it's thrown in Ovi's face everywhere he turns, and he's a great player in this league. I knew the frustration because you're so close and you just can't get it, and you just got to stay with it.”
After 51 playoff games together, Ovechkin and Trotz will take part in their first East final starting Friday night in Tampa Bay against the Lightning. Now that they've gotten over a hump that defined their respective careers, Ovechkin, Trotz and the Capitals are in unfamiliar territory.
“It's something new for us and cool,” Ovechkin said Wednesday, less than 48 hours after Washington eliminated the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. “Right now it's just satisfaction we beat the Stanley Cup champions finally and we move forward and now we're going to play against a very good team, against very good goaltending and solid players over there.”
The Atlantic Division-champion Lightning present a formidable challenge, but the Capitals had to overcome something altogether different after losing in the first or second round in all nine playoff appearances that have come during the Ovechkin era dating to 2008. Beating the rival Penguins in overtime in a Game 6 on the road made the breakthrough even more emotional.
“We should be proud of that,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It's a big achievement. But I think we've got to be greedy. We've got to want more because this is a heck of a run. I don't know if there is a group out there that knows how hard it is to get to this point.”
The Capitals are at this point with Ovechkin on top of his game with eight goals and seven assists, his best playoff output since 2009. And they're here in large part because of Trotz, a well-respected, 19-year NHL coach who does not have a contract for next season.
“I had a summer which was very enlightening to me, and I just look at everything way differently than I ever have,” Trotz said. “I just recognized that I can only control what I can control, and the other stuff I can't.”
Trotz can't control upper-body injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Andre Burakovsky or a three-game suspension handed out to winger Tom Wilson, only the decisions he makes in replacing them. So far, Trotz has pushed the right buttons, like putting Braden Holtby back in net in Game 2 of the first round and promoting Jakub Vrana to the top line in Game 5 against Pittsburgh.
His players know Trotz is in control as he and the Capitals advance further into the spring than they have in 20 years.
“He wants to win a Cup,” forward Chandler Stephenson said. “He doesn't want to make it past the second round. It's obviously a little accomplishment, a little confidence-boost. But we're not done yet. We're only halfway.”