If Barry Trotz wanted to, he could have relaxed, lit a cigar and watched the rest of the NHL fight for positions in the Stanley Cup Playoffs while his Washington Capitals put a bow on a historic regular season.
Washington had 44 wins by Feb. 22, the most through 58 games by any team in the history of the League, and became the 10th team to reach 100 points in 65 or fewer games. The playoffs are a certainty, the Presidents' Trophy is in sight, and the Capitals have their best chance at exorcising playoff demons and winning the Stanley Cup for the first time.
Trotz, however, was not giving in to complacency. Though the Capitals entered a Feb. 18 game at the New York Islanders winners of five of their previous seven, Trotz believed they were slipping in certain areas. He knew opponents were bringing their best every night, so instead of taking the foot off the gas, he saw a chance to refocus and do even better.
"You don't want to be the team that's trying to get your game going when you get to the playoffs," Trotz said. "I've been on the other end a few times when you're chasing a playoff spot. If you get in, you're sort of playoff-hardened and playoff-ready. It makes it a tough kill when it comes to the playoffs. I think that's part of it, being mentally tough and taking a lot of pride [in it]. Every night we feel that we can step on the ice and win a hockey game, and we try to do that."
Rather than let up, the Capitals are accelerating down the stretch. They've yet to lose two straight games in regulation and dwarf their competitors for the League's best record. This makes Trotz the front-runner to win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
The Capitals, who were 1:41 from advancing to the Eastern Conference Final last season before blowing a 3-1 series lead to the New York Rangers, are stronger with the additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. Evgeny Kuznetsov, 23, has dazzled while leading Washington in scoring. Alex Ovechkin's 41 goals lead the League, and Braden Holtby is flirting with breaking Martin Brodeur's single-season NHL record for wins (48, 2006-07).
"All those pieces combined, it's set us up to have pretty good success this year," Trotz said.
Trotz continues to evolve. He has learned his most important lesson in 17 seasons of coaching that may finally lead the Capitals to a championship.
"Probably to listen, and that's probably listening to everybody," Trotz said. "Not only your assistants, but listening to the players and being a little more patient, keeping a little more self-control. Those are some of the key things, I guess. I was probably out of control when I was a lot younger, and I think I'm a little more in control."
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Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim Ducks: General manager Bob Murray remained patient after the Ducks, a popular preseason pick to win the Stanley Cup, started 1-6-2. His instinct to retain Boudreau, who could win his eighth division title in 10 NHL seasons, looks to be the correct one.
The Ducks were 16 points behind the Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific Division on Jan. 12. They're 18-2-2 since Jan. 17 and won 11 straight before a 2-1 shootout loss to the Capitals on Monday, a run that vaulted them into first place. Once last in the League in scoring with 1.84 goals per game, Anaheim had 52 goals in 14 games in February to ascend to 25th by the end of the month.
A light went on after a 3-0 loss to the Buffalo Sabres on Dec. 17, the Ducks' seventh shutout loss that dropped them to 11-14-15. They're 26-6-4 since.
"When we went in there and lost, we weren't very confident, quite frankly, after that game," Boudreau told the Buffalo News. "I think that's when the players realized, 'Hey boys, let's not worry about who scores.' They want to win more than they want personal glory. The next game we went out and won [2-1 at the New Jersey Devils] and we started playing better since that time."
Gerard Gallant, Florida Panthers: Though the Panthers have hit a speed bump, Gallant has them in position to capture the Atlantic Division despite missing Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Derek MacKenzie for various stretches, and with Willie Mitchell still on the sidelines.
Florida was 16 points out of first on Thanksgiving before winning 12 straight from Dec. 15 to Jan. 10, the longest streak in their 23-year history, that lifted them to the top of the Atlantic.
"We want to keep playing and keep working hard," Gallant told WQAM Radio in Miami. "We always talk about it, the next two points. We had a pretty good lead here in first place, and now it's a battle. It's about making the playoffs."
ALSO IN THE MIX: Joel Quenneville, Chicago Blackhawks; Peter DeBoer, San Jose Sharks; Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning