Four games ago, Coach Dale Hunter promoted Jay Beagle from the fourth line to the third – and the 26-year-old center has been making the most of that opportunity ever since.

Beagle has not only excelled in that shutdown role, he’s tallied two goals to help Washington go 3-0-1 and climb back into the Eastern Conference playoff race. He entered the year with three career goals in 41 NHL games.

“When you get a bigger role on the team, you definitely want to step up,” Beagle said after this morning’s pregame skate at Nassau Coliseum. “It’s something you work your whole life for.”

Before the Carolina game, Hunter put Beagle on a line with wingers Matt Hendricks and Troy Brouwer as a reward for his strong play and to add more size and speed to the lineup. Since then, the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder has seen his ice time increase significantly, peaking at a career-high 18:10 in Saturday’s 4-3 win at Boston.

Hunter has also matched Beagle’s line against the opponent’s top offensive line in each of the past four contests.

“All three guys can skate, they have work ethic and block shots,” Hunter said. “They’re hard to play against in that way.”

Hunter said another reason for putting Beagle on the third line was that he wanted Brooks Laich to center Alex Ovechkin in an effort to jumpstart the first line.

“That’s basically what is was,” Hunter acknowledged. “Beagle stepped up and we had no scoring for two games. So I put Brooksie on the top line.”

The key for Beagle will be continuing to produce at a third liner’s pace — on both side of the puck.

“We have so much depth, which is something I’ve been fighting with the whole time I’ve been in this organization,” Beagle said. “To play third-line center in the NHL has been what I’ve dreamed of my whole life. I don’t want to take this chance for granted. Now I just have to keep the ball rolling.”

Early Lead: Sidney Crosby to return Thursday