The Capitals head into the All-Star break in a familiar spot — alone in first place in the Metropolitan Division. But if they are to stay there down the stretch, they’ll need more production from a number of key cogs.
Forwards Andre Burakovsky, Evgeny Kuznetsov, T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana are all looking to snap prolonged droughts.
Burakovsky hasn’t scored a goal in nine games, while Vrana is goalless in his last 16. Kuznetsov has one goal in his last 13 games. Oshie hasn’t found the net in 22 games.
“We need some guys to get a little bit hot,” coach Barry Trotz said. “Not just one or two. I’d like to see the entire group get hot.”
With 13 healthy forwards and only 12 slots available for a given game, Trotz recently sat Burakovsky as a healthy scratch. If Vrana’s struggles continue – Trotz described him as “a non-factor,” last week — he may soon be scratched too. After beginning the season on the No.1 line and playing primarily as a top-six forward, Vrana’s ice time has dipped significantly.
“Sometimes you have to remind them,” Trotz said, “it’s not a right to be in the lineup. It’s a privilege.”
Sunday against Philadelphia, Vrana played on the fourth line and skated a career-low 6 minutes 25 seconds.
“It’s not easy when you keep trying and nothing goes in,” said Vrana, who has 10 goals and 17 points in 48 games this season.
After the Capitals lost 20-goal scorers Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson last offseason, Vrana was among the players management was counting on to help fill the void.
“I think personally, I can be hungrier and getting more into the greasy areas around the net and shoot the puck more,” Vrana said.
Vrana put in extra work at practices this week. He said that if his ice time remains limited in games, it should be easier to “leave it all out there.”
While Vrana has seen his role dip, Trotz hopes that reuniting Kuznetsov with Alex Ovechkin on the No.1 line can get the center going. The 25-year-old showed signs of life Thursday with two assists in a 4-2 win over the Panthers.
“When Kuzy is really skating and he’s got a real high battle mentality,” Trotz said, “he’s going to be the most productive player on the ice. I think he is almost every time he has that attitude. When he’s just going and playing, sometimes I think he’s less productive.”
For players looking to get back on track, the Capitals’ spaced-out schedule hasn’t been particularly favorable. Washington is nearing the end of a stretch with just four games in 18 days. After this weekend’s All-Star break, though, the schedule ramps up with 15 games in 28 days, starting Wednesday against Philadelphia.
“You always want to be better and play better,” Kuznetsov said. “Sometimes it’s just not going well and you have to work through those periods. If you work hard, it will come back.”