PITTSBURGH -- In the aftermath of the Washington Capitals' series-clinching 2-1 overtime win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Monday, coach Barry Trotz wasn't ready to start thinking about what it will take to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.
Trotz planned to take a little time to decompress following the biggest victory of his 19-season NHL coaching career.
"I'm just going to digest this right now," he said. "I'm probably going to have a cold one or two and just enjoy it."
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No doubt they tasted sweet after all the Capitals and their coach have gone through to get to this point.
The Capitals are in the conference final for the first time since 1998. They'll open on the road; Game 1 is Friday at Tampa Bay (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVAS).
Like most of his players, Trotz had never made it past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So the 55-year-old as much as anyone understands what this means to forward Alex Ovechkin, center Nicklas Backstrom, defenseman John Carlson and the rest of the Capitals' core. Ovechkin, 32, has been in the NHL for 13 seasons; like Trotz, he repeatedly was reminded he'd never been to a conference final.
Thanks to a complete team effort capped by center Evgeny Kuznetsov's breakaway goal 5:27 into overtime Monday, that's no longer the case.
Video: Discussing the Caps' Game 6 OT win over the Penguins
"I've been at this for a while and it's so hard to move forward sometimes," Trotz said. "It's always thrown in your face everywhere you 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. You've just got to stay with it."
That it finally happened for the Capitals this season was unexpected. They were Stanley Cup favorites when they won the Presidents' Trophy the past two seasons but couldn't get past the Penguins in the second round either time.
Their 2-0 loss to the Penguins in Game 7 last season appeared to close the Stanley Cup window for this group, with forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson and defensemen Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt departing in the offseason.
Trotz is in the final year of his contract after general manager Brian MacLellan declined to give him an extension following last season, and his job appeared in jeopardy when the Capitals went 10-9-1 in their first 20 games. But they went 17-4-2 over their next 23 and finished 49-26-7 to win a third consecutive Metropolitan Division title.
Even after that, MacLellan said April 6 that any decision on Trotz's future would not be made until after the playoffs.
"We wanted to wait to see how the year finished up total, the total year," MacLellan said.
A lot has changed in the month since then, highlighted by the Capitals dethroning the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions.
"That's unbelievable for him. That's special game for him, for sure," Kuznetsov said of Trotz. "He did a lot of good things in this league for so many years, and that's [why], like what I said, it's a special day for him."
Video: #ThirstForTheCup: Caps heading to Conference Final
Trotz has mostly avoided talking about his contract. Asked before the start of the playoffs if he thought he were coaching for his job, Trotz replied, "I'm not even going to comment. I haven't lost any sleep about it."
But after Trotz was selected to coach the Metropolitan Division at the 2018 Honda NHL All-Star Game, he hinted at how much the season weighed on him.
"I had a lot of stuff to go [through]," Trotz told NHL.com Jan. 24. "Some I can talk about and some I can't. Probably the best way to say it is this has been almost the most difficult year I've ever coached in some ways."
Things are looking up for Trotz now. He has the Capitals buying into playing the kind of defense it takes to win in the playoffs. And after defeating the Penguins, he'll hold a lot more cards if he and MacLellan ever sit down to discuss a new contract.
But as Trotz said, "We beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, and they're a hell of a hockey team, and we're only halfway."
The Capitals need eight more victories to win the Stanley Cup for the first time. When they made their lone Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings.
At that time, a 35-year-old Trotz was preparing for his first NHL coaching job with the expansion Nashville Predators. After 15 seasons with Nashville and four with Washington, he's finally in the NHL's final four.
Trotz ranks fifth in NHL history with 1,524 regular-season games and 762 wins (762-568-134 with 60 ties). The four coaches ahead of him -- Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, Al Arbour and Ken Hitchcock -- each won the Stanley Cup at least once.
Trotz watched the Predators, a team he helped build from scratch, reach the Cup Final last season. After the Capitals trailed 2-0 before eliminating the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round, and then eliminated the Penguins, there's reason to believe Trotz's turn is coming.
"We haven't done anything, yet," Trotz said. "But it's a good feeling getting by the Penguins because there's a lot of skeletons in the closet, and it's a start."
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