As the Washington Capitals host the New Jersey Devils in a game with first place in the Metropolitan Division at stake, skilled forward Andre Burakovsky will be a healthy scratch for the first time this season.
“I think like anything it’s an earned right,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “We need Andre to get his game to the next level, put some urgency. There’s nothing that puts more urgency into a player than not being in the lineup. We’ve seen that in the past with guys we’ve sat out.”
This is a frustrating chapter in what has been a frustrating season for Burakovsky, whom the team had high expectations for this year. After the Capitals parted with top-six forwards Marcus Johansson and Justin Williams, Washington tabbed Burakovsky, 22, as a player who could increase his production to replace some of the lost scoring.
But Burakovsky struggled to start the season, broke his left thumb in October and, aside from a two-goal performance in Dallas, has been largely ineffective. He has three goals and five assists in 19 games, and Burakovsky has now been a healthy scratch in each of his first four seasons in the NHL. Perhaps the Capitals had hoped the 2013 first-round pick would be past the point where that’s necessary. He’s known for being streaky, regularly going through long slumps without a goal.
“I think with every player you hope that,” Trotz said. “All the details, all the consistency, you shouldn’t go 20 games without a point or a goal or whatever. There’s times when we played him and he probably shouldn’t be in the lineup. So I think we’re past that a little bit. We’ve got to force him to get to the next level, and sometimes it’s a little bit of tough love; sometimes it’s getting the player to realize how much being on the ice means to him. There’s no entitlement. He’s a veteran player now. He’s a young veteran player that we expect to be real good.”
Rookie defenseman Madison Bowey will also be a healthy scratch Saturday night. “He can be a little bit better in some areas,” Trotz said. Defenseman Taylor Chorney will be in the lineup instead.
With Burakovsky out, forward Tom Wilson will take his place on the third line with center Lars Eller and winger Brett Connolly. In a lineup shake-up, Trotz promoted forward Devante Smith-Pelly to the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Jakub Vrana will take Burakovsky’s spot on the second power-play unit.
The Devils have played two fewer games than the Capitals, and they have one more point (50) than Washington (49) in a Metropolitan Division race separated by just 10 points from top to bottom. As December games go, Saturday’s is a significant one.
“I think we just know that whoever wins is in first place at the end of the night,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “I think that’s more of what we’re looking at and trying to get some separation from all of the teams. It kind of seems that, whenever we win, every other team wins in the Metro. It’s a little frustrating that way, and I don’t think it’s going to change much as we go. I think it’s going to be like that the whole year. Maybe that’ll be good because it’ll kind of push us to the end of the season.”
Said Trotz: “I don’t think anybody expected them to be where they are, but they’ve earned that right. They’ve outplayed people, and they’ve won more games than most teams in the league. They’ve got a really good team game. Systematically, they’ve bought into structure. They’ve got a high work ethic, they’ve got a high skill level and speed, and they’ve got a buy-in. They’re bought in. They’re all buying in on their decision-making. They’re all buying in on their work ethic. They’re all buying in on all that stuff. They got off to a great start and it’s sort of built their confidence and their nerve, and they’re a good hockey team.”
Here’s how Washington’s lineup will look against New Jersey:
Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom-Devante Smith-Pelly
Jakub Vrana-Evgeny Kuznetsov-T.J. Oshie
Brett Connolly-Lars Eller-Tom Wilson
Chandler Stephenson-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratched: Andre Burakovsky
Dmitry Orlov-Matt Niskanen
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Taylor Chorney
Scratched: Madison Bowey
Braden Holtby (starter)
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