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Amid goal drought, Jakub Vrana searches for confidence — and more ice time

Jakub Vrana hasn’t scored in 15 games and finished Sunday’s loss to the Flyers with a career-low in ice time. (Winslow Townson/Associated Press)

Jakub Vrana and Madison Bowey, once teammates in the American Hockey League and now figuring it out together with the Washington Capitals, have developed an odd game-day routine.

Whenever they leave the tunnel, whether for the start of a game or ahead of the second or third periods, Bowey extends a hand behind his back and Vrana grabs hold of it. The ritual started with Bowey, who always skates out in front of Vrana, extending his hand for a behind-the-back high-five. One game, Vrana held onto Bowey’s hand instead of slapping it. Bowey didn’t shake him off, and a ritual was born.

“We kind of, like, hold hands, and skate on the ice together,” Vrana said, laughing hard, after the Capitals’ practiced Tuesday. “I was kind of waiting on who was going to ask me this.”

That revelation came amid questions about Vrana’s recent offensive struggles, a slightly less enjoyable topic that still didn’t shake the 21-year-old’s friendly disposition. Vrana, playing in his first full NHL season, had 10 goals and six assists before the calendar turned to 2018. But in the 12 games since an overtime loss to the Arizona Coyotes on Dec. 22, he has recorded just one assist and no goals, and on Sunday, he played a career-low 6:25 in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers.

Vrana played on the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Devante Smith-Pelly against the Flyers, and Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said his low ice time was a product of the team matching up particular lines with the Flyers’ lines as the game wore on. But the limited ice time keeps Vrana mired in an offensive slump.

“I know it’s been a long stretch here now, I really haven’t put up any points lately,” Vrana said. “But to get my confidence back, I need to play a good overall game and help the team with using my speed, putting pucks deep and just keep working hard. Extra work and, you know, shoot the puck and hopefully something is going to go in.”

Andre Burakovsky needs a short memory after a forgettable first half

On Saturday, in the Capitals’ first practice since their recent bye week and the last time they skated before facing the Flyers, it appeared that Vrana would be a healthy scratch for Sunday’s game. He rotated in on line rushes throughout practice, but it was Alex Chiasson who skated alongside Beagle and Smith-Pelly on the fourth line, while Andre Burakovsky was moved up to the second line next to Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. Vrana had skated on a second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Wilson in recent weeks, but appeared to be getting squeezed out of the rotation of wingers.

Vrana was in the lineup against the Flyers, and Chiasson was the team’s healthy scratch along with defenseman Taylor Chorney. Trotz’s explanation of potentially scratching Vrana gives a look into his approach with young, talented players such as Vrana and the 22-year-old Burakovsky.

“Sometimes you try to send a message,” Trotz said when asked about Vrana, who was a healthy scratch during a road trip in December. “It’s no different than [Burakovsky], [Burakovsky] not having a lot of success, and there’s nothing that changes. Nothing has the effect than taking away something a player loves to do. In [Burakovsky’s] case, it was taking the fact that he couldn’t go out and show what he could do, and what he wants to do, and how much he misses it. And sometimes you have to remind them, it’s not a right to be in the lineup, it’s a privilege.”

Trotz added that Vrana had a hot stretch that “dissipated,” and said that Vrana had been a “non-factor” in the five or six games leading into the loss to the Flyers. He wants to see Vrana use his speed to create scoring chances, which is a similar case with Burakovsky, as the pair has teetered up and down, and in and out of, the lineup at times this season.

At practice Tuesday, Vrana was with Beagle and Smith-Pelly as Chiasson rotated in. There is still another practice and morning skate before the Capitals, losers of three straight and without a five-on-five goal in nearly 125 minutes, face the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., on Thursday. Vrana likely will have another chance to scratch the scoreboard then.

We could have as many talks and show film and all that, but sometimes giving messages has a big effect,” Trotz continued, speaking about his approach with Vrana and, to a similar extent, Burakovsky. “It’s a big deal in media, you guys make a big deal about it, it’s no different than putting some of your children in timeout. We need you to act better and perform better. It’s no different. You still love them. They’re good people, they’re good players, you try to get the message across in different ways.”

More Capitals coverage: 

The Capitals’ offensive luck may be starting to run out

Jay Beagle wants to win every faceoff. The goal is simple, but the nuances aren’t.

Capitals have plenty of shots but fall in OT to Flyers, 2-1, for third straight loss