There was no gloating, or even an explicit admission that eliminating the Capitals in a first-round playoff series meant more to him than merely surviving and advancing.
But Barry Trotz did acknowledge late Thursday night that the experience was emotionally complicated for him.
“I look on the other side, and I see champions over there,” the former Capitals coach said after his Islanders clinched the best-of-seven series in five games with a 4-0 victory in Toronto.
He mentioned Capitals stars such as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Braden Holtby and John Carlson and said again,“Those guys are champions in my mind. They always will be.”
It has been only 26 months since Trotz resigned from the Capitals, not long after winning a Stanley Cup and getting lowballed on a contract extension offer.
Enter Todd Reirden, his successor in waiting, whom the Capitals were quick to install behind the bench after parting with Trotz.
After Game 5, Trotz and Reirden shared a perfunctory handshake that looked like one between Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini — only colder, given that Trotz had to walk on ice to get to Reirden.
The Islanders’ Josh Bailey said the players wanted this for Trotz and assistants Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn, who came with him from Washington.
“It feels good,” Bailey said. “And I think it was motivation for us, too. I think you’re obviously motivated to win the series, but you knew it would mean a lot to those guys. So, happy to get it done.”
Added Adam Pelech, “That’s a team that he had a ton of success with and I think he was pretty excited about it and we’re really glad that we could help him do that.”
When the Caps fell behind 3-0 in the series, their fans took note of the fact that the new coach was bound for a second straight first-round elimination while the old coach was about to advance for a second straight year.
After Game 3, Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga summed up the mood in D.C. with a scathing piece that read in part:
“Trotz has basically taken a black crayon and drawn a mustache on Reirden to mock him, then scribbled out any advantage the more talented Caps might have.”
When it was over, after Trotz and Reirden shared their brief handshake, Trotz had warmer greetings for some former players on the handshake line, including Holtby, the goaltender.
“Obviously, we had a lot of success when he was here, a guy that I know myself I have a ton of respect for,” Holtby said. “He’s an honest guy. You just wish him the best because he’s one of the good guys in hockey.”
Trotz said afterward that facing his former players “tears you a little bit, because there’s so many good memories, but at the same time you work for someone else and you want to beat that group, just because we’re competitive. We don’t want to lose.”
It was clear he was struggling to describe what he was feeling. Even before Game 5, he acknowledged that coaching against the Capitals felt strange, though the feeling was “starting to dissipate.”
“But I have a lot of good memories with the core group,” he said. “We did something very special. So that will never go away. That will be the same until I’m on my deathbed, basically. So that will not dissipate. That will be part of who we were in 2018.
“But it’s 2020. It’s a different situation and as I’ve said, I’d love to have that experience with the group that I have right now and the people that I have right now. That’s been the goal from Day One.”
On Thursday, he took another step toward that goal, by stepping over his old team.