SAN JOSE — With the Washington Capitals’ bottom-six forwards slumping and Coach Todd Reirden’s tinkering with the line combinations not doing much to solve that, he decided to give a vintage trio one more try. Reirden reunited third-line center Lars Eller with wingers Brett Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, and after all three players had struggled in their own ways for the month leading up to that point, they made each other better once they got together again.
Part of the Capitals’ problem since the calendar turned to 2019 — they’re 7-8-4 since the start of January — has been a secondary scoring drought, especially from the third line. Before the team’s bye week, Connolly went 12 games with just one goal and two assists, and Eller had just one goal and four assists during that same stretch. Both were taken off the second power play unit and replaced by forwards Travis Boyd and Tom Wilson.
Burakovsky has bounced around the lineup with both he and Reirden acknowledging that other forwards had done more to earn more ice time than him, but since Reirden moved Burakovsky back with Eller and Connolly — that trio has skated more than 680 minutes together at even strength since the start of the 2016-17 season — all three forwards have rediscovered their scoring touch. Over the past three games, Burakovsky has three assists, Connolly has three goals with one assist and Eller has one goal and one assist.
With the trade deadline on Feb. 25, this six-game, 12-day road trip, Washington’s longest of the season, could decide how much of the roster is shaken up, especially in the forward ranks. General Manager Brian MacLellan has said he’s looking to swap forwards of comparable salary, and he’s believed to be looking for a third-line scoring winger. But that current third trio of Burakovsky, Connolly and Eller seems to be playing its best hockey of the season right now.
“Offensively, we kind of think the same, and we’re comfortable with each other, so that’s not an issue,” Connolly said. “We’re comfortable as a line because we’ve played together so much. … I thought we’ve been a lot better, probably our best hockey of the year, after the break, so we know kind of what we need to be playing well and what time of year it is. We’re getting ready for that time."
This has already been a career year for Connolly with 13 goals and 17 assists for 30 points. Reirden said he called Connolly in the summer and told the 26-year-old that he’d get more ice time and more responsibility, and “it was up to him where he took it from there.” He’s skated more than 90 seconds more per game, and Reirden said he’s been “a positive surprise” for the team this season. The timing is ideal for Connolly, who’s scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this summer. MacLellan said last month that the team could have interest in re-signing him.
“The salary cap is going to come into effect with him, for sure; it’s going to depend on what we have available,” MacLellan said. “I think he’s another player that’s continually gotten better. I think this is probably the best he’s played, not just point-wise, but handling pucks in his own end, making plays with the puck, managing the whole game. I think this is the best he’s been since we’ve had him. So, we’d like to have him back, but we’re going to have to balance what we can do with him and the cap.”
Connolly and Eller were two of the Capitals’ top contributors during the Stanley Cup finals last season, when they combined for 13 goals and 14 assists. Eller in particular starred, scoring the championship-clinching goal in Game 5 but also stepping into a top-six role when center Nicklas Backstrom was injured for three games. And Reirden believes that it’s been Eller’s play that’s made the biggest difference for that third line of late.
“I think most lines go as your center goes, and I think he’s played much better hockey,” Reirden said. “His execution has been a lot better. The speed and pace of play he’s played with since returning from the break has been noticeable. I think that Connolly and Burakovsky have done a nice job of finding areas for him. But they’ve had a lot of situations where they’ve really supported the puck closely, and they’re working nicely as a group.”
That’s a credit to Burakovsky, too, who’s seemingly found his game again offensively after a rough start to the season. He’s been the subject of trade rumors, in large part because he’s going to be a restricted free agent this summer and the Capitals aren’t likely to tender him a $3.25 million qualifying offer. With seven goals and nine assists through 51 games, his .31 points per game average is a career low, but he’s been known to be streaky in past seasons.
“Being an offensive guy and being relied on to chip in offensively, when you go a few games and for whatever reason it’s not working for you, it’s hard to not think about that every day,” Connolly said. “It weighs on you, it’s no question, but he definitely kept working hard, and it wasn’t an easy situation for him. He found a way to stick with it, and he’s playing his best hockey right now. We’re going to need him obviously, and it’s good to see him play with a little more confidence and get some points and some goals and just see him happy around the rink again.”