Jakub Vrana sped down the ice, only the goalie and the net in front of him on a breakaway. He’d swarmed the net all game with opportunity after opportunity, but his otherwise brilliant performance was still missing one thing: a goal. As he neared Ottawa goaltender Mike Condon, he deked, then lifted the puck — but it sailed high, over the cage. And with the miss, Vrana’s two-plus-month stretch without a goal continued.
Vrana’s most recent goal came 25 games ago, against the Boston Bruins on Dec. 14. That was his 10th of the season — and in just 32 games. At the time, it signaled a new scoring threat for the Capitals had arrived sooner than expected. But while Vrana has had some good games even without the goal production, his drought has also hurt his status in the lineup. In those 25 games without a goal, he has six assists and is a minus-4. He had been a healthy scratch for two games before cracking Tuesday’s lineup, rotating with Alex Chiasson as the extra forward.
Coach Barry Trotz praised his performance after Washington’s 3-2 win over Ottawa, and that means Vrana will almost certainly stay in the lineup for the Capitals’ Stadium Series game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday. But for a 22-year-old rookie whose confidence on the ice is connected to scoring goals, the drought is understandably weighing on him.
“I don’t know; I just can’t find the back of the net for a long time,” Vrana said. “It’s a tough time.”
It hasn’t been for a lack of trying. Over the past 25 games, Vrana is fourth on the team in even-strength shots per 60 minutes (7.53), and he’s also generated the most individual high-danger chances per 60 minutes at even strength, according to Natural Stat Trick. He had three shots on goal in Tuesday night’s game against Ottawa, recording an assist on one of Evgeny Kuznetsov’s two goals. The process has been encouraging even if there hasn’t been a reward from it yet.
“The foundation for anything is put the work into it,” Trotz said. “Make sure that your feet are moving. Everybody in this game can have an effect on the opposition. You know, [forward] Tom Wilson’s effect on people is probably on the more physical side. Jakub Vrana, his pressure is going to be the speed on the opposition. He might not be overly physical in the way Tom is, but he can have a real major effect by putting pressure on [defensemen] with his speed and his work ethic and making them try to get to pucks and expose them a little bit because he has more speed than them. …
“If he’s hard to play against and he’s using his speed and he’s moving his feet and he’s getting open, he’s got a really great release and he’s got some good instinct, he’s just got to get that first one.”
Vrana’s also not the only player in a drought on that second line with Kuznetsov. It’s been 28 games since star winger T.J. Oshie has scored an even-strength goal, and he has just 11 points in that span. Oshie has 12 goals this season, a significant drop from the 33 he scored a year ago, which tied captain Alex Ovechkin for the team lead. Ovechkin’s league-best 39 goals are the most on the team, and Kuznetsov is second with 19 goals, ironic considering his preference is to pass first.
“I always love to use my partners more than I love to shoot because I feel like that gives confidence for all our lines,” Kuznetsov said.
“That line was outstanding,” Trotz said. “It started with Kuzy, but I thought V [Vrana] was really good. Osh was really moving his feet, and that battle was right there. I think Kuzy, he had one open net that I think he was actually looking for V or Osh unselfishly. … Maybe they’re just cracking through.”
Vrana was just happy the trio played well and the team won. But as he considered the past two months, not scoring in 2018 yet, he pursed his lips and shook his head as he lamented the crossbars and posts he’s hit in this recent stretch. The closer he gets to scoring and snapping this streak, the more the missed opportunities nag at him.
“I’m just really anxious, you know?” Vrana said. “I’m just going to keep working hard, and hopefully the next one is just going to go bar-in and not bar-out.”
Trotz pointed out the struggles are all part of adapting to the NHL level, not that it makes an offensive breakthrough any less crucial for the Capitals.
“This league exposes you a little bit and tests you a little bit,” Trotz said. “He’s got to just find ways instead of just getting down, finding ways of just being really consistent night in and night out. And he has. His work ethic has been really good. His defensive game has come around. It’s just the production, and that’s what he was drafted for, so that’s where we need him to get to.”