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Andre Burakovsky’s season might have reached its long-awaited turning point

Andre Burakovsky celebrates after scoring a goal Thursday. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

CHICAGO – Andre Burakovsky had it all planned in his mind. In the first year of his new contract, he’d solidify himself in the Capitals’ top-six forward corps, reach a new career-high in goals and points, meeting those lofty expectations from the organization with a breakout year. Those goal droughts he had of 25-plus games the past two seasons would be a thing of the past this time. He’d stay healthy and in the lineup.

“It’s just reality that it doesn’t go that way,” Burakovsky said.

Instead, Burakovsky broke his thumb nine games into the season and missed the next 20. Still young at just 23 years old, Burakovsky feeds off confidence, and the injury sapped it. His production stalled, and then he was a healthy scratch for a handful of games. Those big expectations Washington had for the 2013 first-round pick weighed heavily in his fourth NHL season.

And then on Thursday night in Minnesota, Burakovsky skated from one end of the ice to the other, and sniped a puck past Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk. That was the player Burakovsky was supposed to be this season, speedy with a splendid shot. His second goal in as many games has fueled the hope that the Burakovsky the Capitals were expecting has finally arrived.

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“This season hasn’t been how I wanted it to, but I think everything is coming with confidence, and right now, I think I’m kind of on my way back to where I want to be,” Burakovsky said.

As the puck beat Dubnyk in the third period on Thursday, Robert Burakovsky celebrated with other players’ fathers in a suite above the ice, both relieved and overjoyed. “You have an extra beer, or an extra Captain Morgan,” Robert said. It was a change from some of the earlier days this season, days that featured phone calls in which the father could hear his son’s distress in his voice.

“Sometimes you have to support and sometimes you have to tell him the truth, that, ‘Hey, you have to wake up,’” said Robert, who played over 20 years of professional hockey, including a brief stint in the NHL with the Ottawa Senators. “Andre has always, always, always put up some goals, and he always want to play good and have his goal and he always made goals, but Andre never had a tough time in hockey. Always everything was going well, and suddenly, you have a tough time in your career. That’s normal; everybody has that. And it’s really tough to come out of it.”

Burakovsky scored 17 goals two seasons ago, and he played brilliantly in the second round of the playoffs last year. But over the first 29 games of the season, Burakovsky had scored four goals and added seven assists; he was booted out of the top-six. Last week, Coach Barry Trotz said scratching him was “tough love” and compared it to taking away television privileges for his children when they didn’t do their chores. And then Trotz looked out onto the ice at the team’s practice facility and saw Burakovsky still there, playing with 6-year-old Owen Meyer, a Make-A-Wish recipient who joined the team after practice. “He’s still a kid,” Trotz said of Burakovsky with a chuckle.

“He cares about his position so much, and he cares about trying to produce,” Trotz said. “But it’s different pressures. When you’re a rookie, there’s no pressure. … But as he’s growing into a pro, there becomes some expectations. It’s like an adult when you have some responsibilities. He’s growing into that.”

With Washington in need of veteran defenseman before the trade deadline, Burakovsky’s dip in scoring this season led to some speculation he could be traded. But even before he scored two goals in the past two games, a team source said the Capitals had no intention of dealing the skilled Swede. “That’d be stupid,” the source said.

General Manager Brian MacLellan and Trotz echoed that publicly.

“He’s a young player who’s a good player,” Trotz said. “We’re not giving up on him, and he knows that.”

Said MacLellan: “I’m really confident that he’s going to be a good player here, and he’ll find it down the stretch for us.”

Burakovsky said Thursday night was the first time his legs didn’t feel heavy, that his skating felt free again. It was all how he’d planned and envisioned this summer, and while he vowed to keep improving and not get ahead of himself, the old swagger was nearly back.

“I’m feeling and feeling it,” Burakovsky said. “I’m playing with way more confidence.”

Read more Capitals coverage:

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What re-signing Lars Eller means for the trade deadline, Capitals’ other free agents