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Todd Reirden gets big test in NHL playoffs

April 7, 2019

Alex Ovechkin walked out of the Washington Capitals’ locker room Saturday night after a 3-0 regular season-finale loss to the New York Islanders looking for someone.

Covered with towels, he was surprised when he ran into his former Stanley Cup championship coach, Islanders coach Barry Trotz and didn’t seem prepared for this encounter.

Trotz, dressed in a sharp New York suit, warmly greeted Ovechkin with a hug. They spoke for several minutes. Trotz congratulated him on “winning another Rocket,” referring to Ovechkin winning his record-setting eighth Maurice “Rocket” Richard with 51 goals to lead the NHL. Ovechkin seemed like he didn’t know what Trotz was talking about.

Trotz then told Ovechkin to say hello to his mother and father and wished him good luck in the playoffs.

They have seen each other numerous times in games on the ice throughout this season, and there was the ring presentation made to Trotz in November in the visitors’ locker room at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. But there was a finality to their encounter Saturday night, on the eve of the playoffs.

Trotz’s well-wishes for the playoffs seemed to register with Ovechkin the realization, perhaps, that he will be defending the Stanley Cup this year without the coach who helped him finally win the championship that put an end to the skeptical questions about his career, the title that erased all doubts about Ovechkin’s legacy.

The Capitals are about to begin defending the trophy that set this city ablaze last year and they will be doing it with Todd Reirden, not Trotz, at the helm, with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals Thursday night against the Carolina Hurricanes at Capital One Arena.

This is the final challenge facing Reirden, the assistant coach on last year’s championship team who took over when Capitals owner Ted Leonsis refused to pay the only coach in the team’s history to win a Stanley Cup what Trotz believed he was worth.

Asked about the upcoming series with Carolina, Reirden said, “We know we’ve got to be on top of our game and it’s going to be a challenge.”

The final challenge of his baptismal season as Washington head coach. Like play on the ice, coaching from the bench is magnified in the hockey postseason.

Reirden has met every challenge this season, steering the ship seemingly just right through the good times and then challenging his team to respond during the tough times, such as when his team had lost seven straight going into the All-Star break and responded by winning three out of four coming out of the break, going on to capture their fourth straight Metropolitan Division title with a 48-26-8 record and 104 points nearly identical to last season’s 49-26-7 record and 105 points.

But the playoffs are a completely different season, and no one knows that more than the Capitals, who had to settle for the Presidents’ Trophy twice as regular season winners, followed by years of playoff losing before winning the Cup in five games last June against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Reirden is right the playoffs require something more, including from him.

I asked several Capitals players if Reirden had challenged them over the course of this season.

“I think he did,” Tom Wilson said. “I think he had the respect of the players and demanded that we show up and hold each other accountable and get the job done. He understands the guys in this room.”

Brett Connolly spoke specifically about that losing streak in particular, the 6-3 loss to Toronto right before the break as a moment where the coach demanded more from his team.

“For whatever reason guys were not doing what they are used to doing,” Connolly said. “I think that was one of those moments. He told us to be ready after the break to play better and we did that.

“I think he (Reirden) has done a great job with this group,” Connolly said. “It’s not an easy situation to come into after we won the Stanley Cup and then Barry leaving, being the guy to follow Barry, who was highly thought of, after we won. So I think he’s done a great job doing that.”

Yes he has. But the final judgment awaits.

⦁ You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.