TAMPA — Andre Burakovksy watched the puck go in before he was crunched into the back boards, his arms half raised as defenseman Ryan McDonagh fell on top of him, his face filled with a smile as Amalie Arena quieted in the aftermath.
This was his second goal of the second period of the Washington Capitals’ 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night. Burakovsky, the Capitals’ mercurial 23-year-old forward, entered with zero playoff points and a head filled with lingering doubt. He then scored to double the Capitals’ lead and again to sap the Lightning, and their once pulsing crowd, of the energy needed for a comeback.
And when that never came, it was Burakovsky’s secondary-scoring punch that pushed the Capitals into the Stanley Cup finals. He was, in two words, the improbable hero.
“He had lots of jump early and he was fine. I was really happy for him,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said of Burakovsky after the win. “He’s such a great kid. He’s got a really good sense of humor and he can score it, as you saw tonight.”
Burakovsky’s up-and-down year was followed by more of the same in the playoffs. Long before this run started, as the Capitals found their identity during the seven-month regular season, Burakovsky was injured or a healthy scratch or struggling to find his form on the ice. He finished the year with 12 goals and 13 assists, 10 fewer points than the season before, and had a short leash whenever he received an opportunity as a top-six forward. He was then spotty during the postseason, slowed by an upper-body injury suffered in the first round, without a point in seven games after his return and benched as a healthy scratch for the Capitals’ Game 5 loss in Tampa.
He has never had trouble showing his offensive potential, stickhandling through traffic, blowing by defensemen in the neutral zone, firing a shot that, when given time to dial in, can zip through the smallest of windows. He instead has struggled to turn it into any kind of consistency. He was also just three years old the last time the Capitals played for a Stanley Cup and is not burdened by the franchise’s tortured playoff history.
He has instead been burdened by his own mind.
“That’s kind of my problem a little bit,” Burakovsky said before re-entering the lineup for Game 6 Monday. “I think when I’m doing something bad, I’m thinking about it for a long time, and it just sits in my head. That’s something I have to work on in the summer.
“I did hire a professional sports psychologist, and he’s supposed to be really good. I’m going to work a lot with him this summer and try to get rid of that because that’s something that’s holding me back a little bit.”
It did not hold him back Wednesday; Burakovsky told Nicklas Backstrom he had a “good feeling” about the game before it even started.
Midway through the second period, Capitals center Lars Eller played the puck into the zone and Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi fumbled it. Burakovsky snuck up on Girardi, collected the loose puck and whistled it through a small, shrinking gap between Andrei Vasilevskiy’s right arm and right hip. The Lightning goaltender shook his head lightly as the arena fell limp. Burakovsky was swarmed by four teammates and soon skated through a line of high-fives hanging over the Capitals’ bench.
The Lightning had all the second-period momentum, peppering Braden Holtby with a flurry of chances, until Burakovsky found the net and tilted it back in the Capitals’ favor.
Once Burakovsky sat down, his bangs stiff with sweat and a grin tugging at his mouth, he raised his shoulders before taking a deep breath. Alex Ovechkin, who scored the Capitals’ first goal just 62 seconds into the contest, stood up and yelled in Burakovsky’s direction. Ovechkin’s words made Burakovsky crack into a laugh.
“He said ‘[expletive] right.’ That’s just his word,” Burakovsky said, still laughing in front of his locker after the game. “He said stick with it, you’re playing good.”
The goal loosened the Capitals and Burakovsky at the same time, as he felt more confident with the puck, a bit faster through the zone, more capable of netting another goal to put the Lightning away. That came just under seven minutes later when John Carlson bounced a pass of the boards, springing Burakovsky on a breakaway. He sneaked a shot through Vasilevskiy’s legs before sliding past the net on his side. The arena’s only sounds were scattered cheers from fans in red.
The Capitals then took a deep breath, too.
“It hasn’t been easy for me. It’s been pretty hard,” Burakovsky said. “I was working really hard to get back as fast as possible. It feels really good to help the team to get a win.”
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