Capitals and Wild find lessons in matchup of skidding Cup contenders

1:07 | NHL
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Wednesday March 15th, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the hallway outside the Verizon Center interview room, after the NHL’s best team had ended its four-game losing streak and the once-Western Conference leaders had simultaneously dropped its fourth of five, the two coaches came together and shook hands. “I’ve got a story for you,” Washington’s Barry Trotz told Minnesota’s Bruce Boudreau. It was a dandy.

A little over two months ago, Trotz was jogging through his northern Virginia neighborhood with his youngest son, Nolan, when an oncoming cyclist flagged them down. The cyclist was a massive Capitals fan, you see, and simply couldn’t pass on the chance to shower some kudos about how their season was unfolding. And so, after a few minutes of breathless chatter on the sidewalk, the cyclist remounted his bike and bid farewell like this: “Great to meet you, Bruce!”

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Turns out, Trotz says, such slipups have occurred with surprising regularity since he arrived almost three seasons ago–well-meaning folks mistaking this city’s current 54-year-old apple-cheeked, shiny-domed, paunchy bench boss for a 62-year-old semi-doppleganger who held the same job from 2007-11. Want to hand the cyclist the benefit of the doubt and extend the superficial comparison beyond mere looks? Well, both have steered Washington to its only 120-point seasons and Presidents’ Trophies in franchise history; both possess a gift for gab known to stock notebooks and fill column inches; and…both have first names beginning with the second letter of the alphabet? That’s about all we’ve got.

Besides, if any meaningful comparison could be drawn between Boudreau and Trotz, it should’ve concerned the statuses of their clubs. Tuesday had been labeled “Green Night” at Verizon Center, an ode to environmental consciousness not to be mistaken with the arena’s Monday occupant, whose concert several Wild players had attended—Green Day. This brought Boudreau, his appropriately colored yet equally askew necktie, and the slumping Wild, 1-3-0 on their current road trip, into town. The Capitals, meanwhile, had returned home having dropped four straight for the first time since Trotz’s first month on the job (Oct. 26-Nov. 2, 2014), fresh off their first winless swing through California’s three teams since 1999. Had the game taken place around, say, the All-Star break, it might've felt like a marquee joust between two conference leaders atop the NHL mountain. Instead, they were racing to stop from stumbling down it.

That Washington emerged with a 4-2 victory should soothe locals on several levels. "Alex Ovechkin ended a career-long 10-game scoring drought with a “fanned” one-timer (Boudreau’s term) that snuck through goalie Devan Dubnyk for his 28th of the season and first at even strength (technically speaking, since a Minnesota penalty had just ended) in six weeks. The penalty kill snuffed six of seven minors, including two of three committed during the opening five minutes of the final period. Eight players recorded points, 11 had multiple shots on goal, netminder Braden Holtby made 32 saves and the Capitals temporarily reclaimed sole possession of first in the Metropolitan Division–and the entire league–from Pittsburgh.

“You’re running into teams that are more committed, because they’re desperate, they’re urgent,” Trotz said. “Now we’re in that position, and you saw our mental psyche change a little bit. Now we’re in a battle. I think that’s going to be great for us.”

Down the hall, Boudreau managed to pluck a similar lesson from an opposite result. The Wild had grinded through a solid first period on the road until defenseman Nate Schmidt’s ice-breaking goal with 11.7 seconds left, before falling behind 3-0 by the second intermission on strikes from Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. “We were so passive,” Boudreau said. “We didn’t show any emotion.” Thanks to goals from defenseman Matt Dumba and center Eric Staal, Minnesota managed to climb back within one, 3-2, but a wonky line change sprung Washington fourth-liner Jay Beagle free for the clinching goal with less than six minutes left.

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And yet, when asked how concerned he’s grown about a team that now sits one point behind Chicago in the Central Division and Western Conference standings, Boudreau replied, "You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m not concerned about how good our team is, or how good we’re going to be. This has been a pretty rough stretch. We’re not playing our best, but at the same time, this stretch of games, every second night, is a little bit of wear and tear on them. They’ll get through it. We’ll be better for it come April, May, and June, hopefully.”

Both Boudreau and Trotz have coached long enough to know that the NHL's beast of a schedule eventually bites every club. The Capitals weren't going to keep hanging five goals on visiting opponents, like they did 11 straight times heading into their bye week, which tied an NHL record. Nor was Minnesota going to keep peeling off 12-game winning streaks, like it did right before the calendar flipped to 2017. That their respective coaches believe strength can be gained from struggle, though, reflects their ultimate aims. Say Boudreau's hope prevails until June. Say their paths intersect again three months from now, during the Stanley Cup Final. It will be, at least partially, because they survived—and prevailed from—similar blips at similar times. There, too, the parallels are easily to see

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