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Slump long gone, Andre Burakovsky is riding high

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Andre Burakovsky remembered how loud the crowds were during the playoffs last year, how much more deafening the cheers, how much more likely fans were to leap out of their seats at the slightest trigger down on the ice.

So he was prepared for that familiar playoff sensation Thursday against Philadelphia, and when he felt the undeniable importance of the moment as he looked around at the fans – louder than ever, he thought, and wearing the flashing red bracelets that only added to the atmosphere – he felt comfortable.

The 21-year-old left wing started his second round of playoffs in the NHL accustomed to the pressure, and with no fear of folding under it. Partly because he knows he can score in the playoffs – he did so twice in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Rangers, on fellow Swede Henrik Lundqvist – but mainly because Burakovsky’s simply more confident after overcoming a slump that held him scoreless for 24 games.

He’s scored 15 goals since Dec. 30, and feels he’s cracked the code to consistency.

“I had a little conversation with [Nicklas Backstrom] and Coach too, I was just thinking too much, trying to do too much,” Burakovsky said. “Because when you’re struggling, you try to prove you’re better than you’re playing. My turning point was when I talked to Barry and he said just stick to the simple stuff instead, everything will come. And I started to do it, it was around 30 games in this season. Then everything started going well.”

Following a solid rookie year in which he notched nine goals and 13 assists in 53 games, he entered this season without a set place in the lineup. The top forwards corps was crowded, so the wing instead bounced from one trio to another and then back again. He had just two goals and a couple of healthy scratches in his first 32 games.

Burakovsky focused on keeping his mind clear, and a move from fourth line up to second helped him find a rhythm. Burakovsky said he’s gotten more comfortable with himself off the ice too, which has helped his creativity and poise in games.  General Manager Brian MacLellan said Monday the change has been noticeable.

“He’s been good. I mean, I think sometimes we forget how young he is, you know, because he’s so skilled and he’s got good size, that we just expect things to happen for him,” MacLellan said. “And maybe there was a blip at the beginning of the year but I think he’s worked through it and it’s probably been good for him to go through that, to make him want to be better, to want to learn, to take it to the next level. And I think we’re real happy with the progress that he’s made throughout the year.”

Burakovsky can tell he’s confident because he wants the puck all the time in games — it’s a hunger that was missing earlier this season.

“I know I can score goals and make good plays, I’ve done it before, it doesn’t really matter who it’s against,” Burakovsky said. “I love to have the puck, to create stuff, and  I know when I do have the puck I can do something with it.”

With his confidence finally squared away, Burakovsky can focus on his next challenge this spring: growing his playoff beard.

The Capitals have an optional skate on Saturday, but here’s how the lineup looked in Friday’s practice:

Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Andre Burakovsky-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Justin Williams
Jason Chimera-Mike Richards-Marcus Johansson
Daniel Winnik-Jay Beagle-Tom Wilson

Karl Alzner-Matt Niskanen
Brooks Orpik-John Carlson
Dmitry Orlov-Nate Schmidt

Braden Holtby (starter)
Phillipp Grubauer

Mike Weber
Taylor Chorney
Michael Latta
Stanislav Galiev