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His confidence shattered in the playoffs, Jakub Vrana is out to prove he’s back

Capitals left wing Jakub Vrana scored zero points in the team's 2018-19 postseason campaign. (Nick Wass/AP)

Washington Capitals forward Jakub Vrana went home to the Czech Republic in the summer feeling frustrated and lacking confidence. The 23-year-old had just completed his second postseason run with the Capitals, both the team’s first-round playoff exit and lingering doubts of his play still dancing through his mind.

The speedy, smooth-skating winger recorded zero points in seven postseason games against the Carolina Hurricanes after setting career highs in goals (24) and assists (23) in the regular season. Nearly everything was clicking for Vrana through 82 games, but the playoffs were a different animal. When reporters brought up his career year in early September, it was Vrana who cut in and joked about his poor postseason play negating his regular season.

He kept thinking about the teammates he let down, the goals he should have scored if he were just a second faster down the ice. All the scenarios raced through his head, with the “what ifs” stacking up. He was prepared. He just didn’t execute.

“I was really down on myself,” Vrana said.

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The overthinking continued when he was home with friends and family in the Czech Republic and didn’t start to diminish until he played in the world championships for his national team. He felt his confidence coming back as he returned to the ice and proved the type of player he could be. In the world championship preliminary rounds, Vrana had five points in seven group-stage games, including four goals.

Then he was broken down once more.

In the world championship quarterfinals, Vrana was scratched ahead of a game against Germany. The scratch came after an analyst for, Marek Sykora, said in an interview that Vrana “doesn’t work enough” and that he could see his “celebrity manners.” It was another blow to Vrana’s comeback mission.

“I went to the world championships where I kind of got my confidence back first couple games, and then you see what happened there. It is the same thing with the playoffs,” Vrana said. “You can’t change it anymore.”

After the world championships, Vrana continued to train by himself, taking some time off in the offseason as he normally does to be with some of his friends and family. In part, that is a sliver of his coping mechanism when he is in a bad place. To escape the rink and recharge himself in mid-July, he took a vacation to Marbella, Spain. While there, he got the news via a phone call that his agent had worked out a two-year, $6.7 million deal to re-sign with the Capitals.

While taking time off can help, Vrana knows he would much rather be at a hockey rink, all by himself, with no one else around. It’s hard to find an open sheet of ice in the Czech Republic, but Vrana said he is continually trying. He wants to find a place like the Capitals’ practice facility, where he routinely was the last player on the ice after practice last season, just working on his craft.

“Most of the time I’m just excited to be at the hockey rink by myself,” Vrana said. “Maybe go work by myself, nobody there and go on the ice by myself and do my stuff. Just me and work on what I need to work on, and that brings me my confidence back. That brings me that feeling.”

When Vrana isn’t by himself, he trains with his coach, Aleš Parez, in the Czech Republic. Parez, 38, is a former Czech player who also has ties with the Capitals. Parez went through an unsuccessful rookie camp with the Capitals after his college hockey career with the University of Alaska Anchorage. He then moved back to Europe and played with the Manchester Phoenix in the United Kingdom’s Elite Ice Hockey League.

But Parez is more than a skills coach; he also helps Vrana with the mental side of the game. Vrana believes making sure his mind is in the right place is of the utmost importance. And for a player who always seems bubbly and happy — singing along to whatever catchy song is on in the Capitals’ dressing room, throwing on a backward Capitals hat or meticulously choosing the right portrait of himself for a team project — a serious confidant is a necessity.

“Sometimes we just sit down and talk about stuff, about real life stuff,” Vrana said of Pařez. “And it is important to have someone to share stuff with like that, important stuff to share, someone who understands and someone who you can trust.”

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The work with Parez and vacation have served Vrana well the first six games of the season. He has two goals, including the game-winner in the Capitals’ 3-2 overtime victory over the St. Louis Blues in the season opener, and one assist. But he is not completely happy yet. With a mission to prove himself year after year, he isn’t here for constant talk of goals and points. Instead of setting benchmarks, he believes he will earn goals through his play on the ice.

Still, there have been moments reminiscent of the postseason; Coach Todd Reirden was unhappy with Vrana’s play in the Capitals’ 6-5 loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday. Reirden sent Vrana to the fourth line for a shift or two, searching for a spark. He was back in his normal spot on the second line Saturday in the team’s 4-1 win over the Dallas Stars.

And as Vrana looks back at his disappointing play, he is trying to leave the past in the past — one wide-toothed grin at a time.

“You know me, I am a happy guy,” Vrana said. “I am a happy guy. Sometimes I just get really emotional when it doesn’t go my way. That is when it is really important: When things don’t go well for you, you have to find a way to change it and to make them right again, and that is not being frustrated and sad and all these negative stuffs. You have to find a way to be positive.”

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