WASHINGTON, DC—Going into the playoffs, the Capitals knew they had to find a way to take some of the pressure and defensive attention off their high-powered top line led by captain Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Veterans such as Joel Ward, Jay Beagle, Troy Brouwer and Braden Holtby have stepped up with clutch goals, plays and saves, but perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the way rookie forwards Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov have come into their own after struggling during stretches of the regular season.
“They’re not afraid of the big moments,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said after Burakovsky scored both of Washington’s goals in the Caps’ 2–1 win that gave them a commanding three games to one lead as the series heads to New York for Game 5 at Madison Square Garden on Friday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA).
Burakovsky, 20, a first round draft pick (No. 23) by Washington in 2013, spent the season bouncing between the NHL and AHL Hershey after making the Capitals out of training camp. He saw action in 53 games for the Caps, posting nine goals and 22 points with a solid +12 rating, but was sent down for the third time to make room for veteran forward Curtis Glencross, who was acquired from Calgary before the March 2 trade deadline.
Recalled near the end of the regular season as injury insurance, Burakovsky appeared in three games but went pointless. When the playoffs began, he was a healthy scratch until forward Eric Fehr sustained an upper-body injury. Skating in Washington’s last three games against the Islanders, he again failed to record a point but has since rewarded Trotz’s patience and faith during the Rangers series. In his last two games, Burakovsky has produced his first three career playoff points, two of them in his coming out party in Game 4.
With the Rangers leading 1–0 in late in the second period, Burakovsky stole the puck along the boards, darted into the slot and beat his childhood hero, Henrik Lundqvist, with a shot. Then less than a minute into the third, he pounced on a loose puck in the Rangers’ zone, held off defenseman Ryan McDonagh while cutting across the front of the net, and fired home a shot that gave the Capitals the 2–1 lead they wouldn't surrender.
Kuznetsov, another first rounder (No. 26 in 2010), struggled at the beginning of the season, moving between the second and fourth lines and occasionally finding himself watching from the press box, but he too has hit his stride in the playoffs. The 22-year-old’s four postseason goals have him tied with fellow Russian Ovechkin for the team lead. The biggest was the dazzling game-winner Kuznetsov delivered in Game 7 against the Islanders.
A highly skilled scorer and playmaker (his wizardry with a stick inspired teammates Tom Wilson and Michael Latta to nickname him “Harry Potter”) who has a dash of grit in his game, Kuznetsov’s happy-go-lucky demeanor helped him adjust to the demands, pressures and ups and downs of his first NHL season.
Wilson says Kuznetsov had to “press the reset button on his defensive game” early in the year, but the results have been impressive.
“[Coach Barry Trotz] wanted him to be more responsible in the defensive zone, and he bought into that and worked at that, and he got a lot better,” says Wilson, who at 21 is another member of the Capitals’ impressive corps of kids. “And that’s transitioning into his offensive game. If he feels he’s being responsible in the D zone and he’s good on the defensive side of the puck, then his offensive game will take off and go through the roof.
“For him, it’s just building up that confidence that he’s going to be good on the defensive side of the puck. He’s been one of our best players in the playoffs.”
Burakovsky, who spent his junior years in Sweden with a stop at OHL Erie (Connor McDavid’s team) last season, had a simpler lesson to learn. Trotz says that like any young player, the speedy winger got down on himself earlier in the season when he wasn’t playing.
“I told [Burakovsky] at the start of the year, I’m not putting you back in the lineup until you crack a smile again. If I see you moping around the dressing room because you’re not playing, I will not put you in the lineup.
“And he’s always got a smile on his face now.”
So do the Capitals who are marveling at how Burakovsky has begun to shine during the playoffs instead of being overwhelmed by the big stage.
“Naïve ignorance, maybe,” veteran forward Troy Brouwer said with a laugh. “Kuzy’s played at a high level quite a few years, so I know he’s used to these types of situations and this type of play. [Burakovsky], he’s just embracing the moment, it seems like. He’s playing good hockey, he’s having fun out there, and he’s getting rewarded as a result.”
Added Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik: “Kuzy’s a rookie in this league, but he’s been playing in the KHL since he was 16. He’s a pretty experienced guy for his age. Burky is such a loose personality. I think sometimes a free spirit he can’t even get nervous in those situations. They both have confidence in different ways. Everyone in the room loves those two guys and are really happy with the success they’re having.”
In a tight series that has been defined by spectacular goaltending, hard hits, lucky bounces and close scores (all four games have been decided by one goal), the Capitals have found success with two young stars who may be playing out of their minds, but are still working on growing their first NHL playoff beards.
“[When] it’s not going somebody’s way, you’ve got to have other guys read to step up and he and Kuznetsov have both been awesome for us,” Orpik said. “Everyone in the room loves those two guys and are really happy with the success they’re having.”