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Five Questions: Trotz talks hot Capitals, Kuznetsov

by Dan Rosen's Q&A feature called "Five Questions With …" runs every Tuesday. We talk to key figures in the game and ask them questions to gain insight into their lives, careers and the latest news.

The latest edition features Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz:

The season was two games old and Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz felt his team was spinning its wheels, developing some rust.

The Capitals opened with a 5-3 win against the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 10. It was followed with a 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks.

"We were the last team to start playing in the regular season," Trotz said. "And we were exactly that."

The Capitals did start later than every other team in the League this season, but they're churning now, moving forward into a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN) with a five-game winning streak.

Washington came home from a three-game road trip to Western Canada this past Saturday with six points on regulation wins against the Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers. The Capitals beat the Carolina Hurricanes and Chicago Blackhawks at Verizon Center before jetting out west.

Forward Evgeny Kuznetsov was the NHL's First Star of the Week last week with nine points in the three games in Western Canada, including five points in a 7-4 win against the Oilers. Forward Alex Ovechkin has five goals in six games (he was benched for one after oversleeping and being late to practice). Forward Nicklas Backstrom has seven points in four games since making his season debut on Oct. 17 against Carolina. Defenseman John Carlson has 10 points.

That's a lot of good, obviously. But Trotz isn't ready to call the Capitals a complete team just yet. It's way too early for that. The game against Pittsburgh is the first of eight in a row against Eastern Conference teams, including four within the Metropolitan Division.

Trotz spoke to about the Capitals' start to the season, what's working and why, Kuznetsov's game and holes that need to be filled during a phone interview Monday.

Here are five questions with … Barry Trotz:

Do you believe this five-game winning streak is a sign of a team that is truly this good, or has some of this been a team overachieving at this stage of the season, masking some issues it still has to deal with?

"I think we're OK. We still have lots of holes in our game. I think our team played with some pace, which I think caught some teams off guard. We're playing more like the team you saw sort of at the end of last season and into the (Stanley Cup) Playoffs. I think that has to do with a lot of familiarity in terms of how we've been doing things. We've been able to recognize what we need to do quicker because we know the group better, and the foundations were laid last year. Really, it was easier to get back on the rails. We had a lot of bridge repair last year. I think we were able to do that last year and once we got into this season we caught up to game speed quicker than maybe some other teams."

You mentioned holes in your game. What are they?

"We've given up some easy goals this year, which was not really typical for how we ended last year. To think that we're going to score six or seven goals a game is ludicrous. There are too many good teams, but we had a good trip and we were able to capitalize on our chances. I think we can prevent some of those goals against. We started trading chances a little bit more than we needed to. For instance, we scored seven goals, but we never really got rid of Edmonton until the middle of the third period. When you score six or seven goals you should have that team down and out, and we didn't do that. We were a little too loose. When you have them at 6-3 and you really tighten the screws on them, the game is over. But we didn't tighten the screws and they made it 6-4. So now they're hanging around, they get a power play, they're right in your face. We have to manage that better. We need to recognize the certain moments when we have you down and we have to make sure you stay down and sort of kill your will. I don't think we've done a great job of that as of yet."

When you have the puck, do you notice your attack coming in waves, everybody, at least offensively, being on the same page? And what is the key to that for you?

"To me it's not only a line, but it's the five guys in the offensive zone. We're not a one-and-done team, which I think early last year we were one and done. We'd be a quick hit and done, but now we recognize that you can stay in the fight a little longer and make things happen. When you do that you get more movement from your defense and they become a part of your attack. That's why a guy like John Carlson has 10 points already. We've worked on a five-man offensive game. We did last year, and it didn't really take hold, I would say, until probably early December. I think what you're seeing now is a carryover from last year and some good foundational things we had on both sides of the puck. I think it's easier to get things back on the rails when it goes off, whereas last year it was, 'OK, this is what we're trying to do, and you've never done this before or you've done a variation of this,' so it wasn't second nature to them. It's also about the growth of guys like Kuznetsov, (Tom) Wilson and (Andre) Burakovsky. We've got good roles for people and they've grown from last year. It's a combination of all of the above."

I want to get to Kuznetsov, but I wanted to first get back to you saying you're not a one-and-done team. That was sort of the M.O. of the Capitals before you got there. How have you gone about changing that mentality?

"I felt they wanted to beat you on the rush and they didn't want to grind it out, when you can get half your goals in this League by just staying in the fight a little bit. We tried to cultivate that a little bit more. They bought into that. The other thing is, I always felt they were a really big, skilled team, but I never felt we [Nashville Predators] came out of a game against them saying, 'Man, those guys are so big that we can't handle them.' It was like, 'They're so skilled, and if we didn't let them make plays they couldn't.' Last year, I said I think we need to use all of our assets. Coming from only playing the Capitals twice a year, that's how I felt. Play big in the areas that you need to be big and use your skill in the areas that your skill will allow you to do it. Use it in a smart way. The players have done that. Getting the players to be better individually so we could be better as a team has been a mantra through our whole organization."

OK, back to Kuznetsov. Obviously nine points on the three-game trip out west. Obviously he was the NHL's First Star of the Week. But it's not just that he scored some points here. It's bigger than that. What is different about him this season?

"What you're seeing is a continuation of what you saw in the playoffs last year. I'm a big believer that if you can have success in the playoffs, when it means the most and when the game is at its highest pace, it always carries into the next year and it gives a player confidence. With a player like Kuzy (Kuznetsov), he got that confidence. With his all-world skill, which I think he has, I think it's just a continuation of where he was in the playoffs last year. He's been good, really good. But his linemates [Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie], that line, was three very talented individuals when they started and they've become a line. They've worked hard to become a line. Oshie was trying to pass to Ovi every time, and now he's shooting when he's supposed to shoot and not worrying about getting the puck to Ovi. Same with Kuzy. Now they're a line and they're a pretty good line when they're on the same page."


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