The plateau is significant enough that T.J. Oshie knew when linemate Jakub Vrana was close to it — and then certainly when he had reached it. As soon as Vrana scored his 20th goal of the season, Oshie skated up to the official and requested the puck his teammate had shot into the net as a keepsake.
Two nights later, Oshie was on the same milestone watch with a second teammate, who already had scored two goals in the Washington Capitals’ game against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“You know right away,” Oshie said. “I was on the bench in Philly, and I turned to the coaches and was like, ‘Conno’s at 19, right? We need to get him that last one.'”
Brett Connolly ended the night a goal short, but he recorded his 20th of the season against the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, joining Vrana and Tom Wilson as first-time 20-goal scorers. The Washington Capitals could have seven players with at least 20 by the end of the season — center Nicklas Backstrom has 18 and captain Alex Ovechkin, center Evgeny Kuznetsov and Oshie have already scored at least 20 — a signal the team’s depth could be even better than it was a year ago, when just three players finished with more than 20 goals.
Twenty goals is a number players shoot for when they first enter the league. Oshie chuckled at his frustration in taking six NHL seasons to get there, though he got close in 2009-10 with 18 goals and again in 2011-12 with 19. As he neared his arbitration hearing in 2012 as a restricted free agent, he had to check “no” on the box that asked whether he had ever been a 20-goal scorer. “I was sniffing at it a lot, but it’s a milestone there that you feel good when you’re able to reach that number,” Oshie said.
Vrana, Wilson and Connolly have their own stories of getting to 20 goals: one a second-year player coming into his own; another a physical force who’s showing he has offensive chops, too; and the third continuing a career renaissance in Washington after being labeled a draft bust to start his career.
“It’s fun for the guys when you can share that with your teammates,” Wilson said. “Obviously, you’re nothing without the guys playing with you, so guys kind of see it as a group milestone. It’s nice to help guys get there and it’s nice to achieve it when it’s you — it’s always nice when they’re going in — but it’s kind of something that you say ‘congrats,' and move on.
"Obviously [Vrana] had a little bit of a different incentive.”
Still on his entry-level contract, Vrana’s 20th goal triggered a $212,500 bonus, according to CapFriendly.com. And with the 23-year-old due a new deal this summer as a restricted free agent, every point ticks up how much he could cash in.
After an NHL rookie season that saw him score 13 goals with 14 assists, Vrana came into this campaign with more confidence from last year’s Stanley Cup run, when he was on a second line with Backstrom and Oshie. That’s where he started this season, and outside of a handful of games, he has maintained that top-six position through consistency — Vrana hasn’t gone more than four games without tallying a point this year — and hard work, often staying on the ice well after practice has finished to perfect parts of his game and impressing teammates with his professionalism all the while.
“I think he knows how good he is,” Connolly said. “Once you believe that you can beat guys one-on-one with his speed, you start gaining more and more confidence. I think he’s kind of got his belief in his game where he knows he’s got that elite speed and skill and he can really beat anyone, I feel, with his speed.”
Wilson was a long shot to get to 20 goals this season after he was suspended by the NHL Department of Player Safety for the first 16 games. But while the Capitals have been touting Wilson’s offensive upside for years, he didn’t see himself turning into a 20-goal scorer. “I would have never thought,” he said.
Part of that was the role he started his NHL career in, initially cast as a fourth-line fighter who didn’t score more than seven goals his first four years in the league. But he set a career high with 14 goals last season and played mostly on a top line with Kuznetsov and Ovechkin, cashing in over the summer with a six-year, $31 million contract. Never one to set firm offensive goals for himself, Wilson had to adjust expectations with the pressure of playing that high in the lineup.
Of players who have scored at least 20 goals this season, only Nashville’s Viktor Arvidsson has played in fewer games (49).
“As you get more responsibility, you’re expected to contribute,” Wilson said. “You’re expected to produce. That’s part of the job of playing on this team. If you’re playing up there, you need to help those guys score and you need to be scoring. And if you’re not, you won’t be playing there. . . . You learn the areas that you’ve got to go to, and you learn chemistry with those types of players and their ability to make plays that maybe you haven’t seen before.”
A career season couldn’t come at a better time for Connolly, an unrestricted free agent after this season. That he would become a 20-goal scorer was perhaps a forgone conclusion when Tampa Bay drafted him sixth overall in 2010, but with both the Lightning and then his second stop in Boston, his production never quite matched the hype of that draft position. After the Bruins cut him loose in 2016, he signed a one-year deal with the Capitals, perhaps the last shot for his career. He thrived in the stable third-line spot, posting back-to-back career-high 15-goal seasons.
This is already the 26-year-old’s first 40-plus point campaign (he has 21 goals and 22 assists), and of NHL players who have scored at least that many points, Connolly’s averaging the least amount of ice time (13:17).
“I don’t think a whole lot of wingers playing on the third line not playing a lot of power play are going to get 20 goals,” center Lars Eller said. “You’re certainly getting a lot of value with Brett. You’re getting a lot of bang for the buck for sure. He’s an underrated goal scorer who could play in the top six with his ability, so it’s a luxury to have a guy like him on the third line.”
It was Eller who picked up the puck after Connolly scored his 20th, a symbol of an achievement eight years in the making.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Connolly said. “I had to work for things, and I had to push every year for that. It was obviously a good situation for me coming here and joining this group, and definitely very, very happy to get that [20th goal] right away. I didn’t really want it to linger on [longer] than it should. It was just really, really good to see that one go in, for sure.”