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Burakovsky boosts Capitals on second line

Forward finds scoring touch with Kuznetsov, Williams

by Katie Brown / Correspondent

ARLINGTON, Va. -- Andre Burakovsky was doing too much thinking and not enough scoring.

The Washington Capitals forward was in a 25-game goal drought and the thought of being sent to the minors was on his mind.

But coach Barry Trotz had faith in the 21-year-old, and it has paid off.

"When he was struggling, I think he worried about being sent down," Trotz said. "I actually told him the opposite: 'I am not going to send you down. You figure this out. You make sure that you're working on these certain things and get your mind in the right place.'"

Burakovsky did, and has put the puck in the right place lately, scoring 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 16 games since Jan. 2. An eight-game point streak ended Thursday against the Minnesota Wild.

Earlier this season, it was a struggle for Burakovsky, not only mentally, but to find a spot in the Capitals' crowded forward rotation. Lately, he's been playing on the second line with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Justin Williams.

Video: WSH@NJD: Burakovsky opens the scoring

"[Kuznetsov] and [Williams] are really good players," Burakovsky said. "They make you a lot better and it's much easier to play with really skilled and fast and good players than a fourth-line player."

Burakovsky started the season filling in on the first and second lines while center Nicklas Backstrom was injured. After Backstrom returned, Burakovsky spent the next 30 games bouncing around the lineup. He scored nine points in 34 games, was a healthy scratch for two games in November, and had that 25-game goal drought that stretched from Oct. 28 to Dec. 28.

"It's tough when you're sitting a couple minutes on the bench and then try and get out and try and get something going," Burakovsky said.

He was down, so down Trotz had Burakovsky talk with mental toughness coach Eric Hoffberg, all the while having his confidence boosted by Trotz.

"I just wanted him to play hard and well and the points will come," Trotz said. "He's too talented for the points not to come. I think he is a player that needs to have a little bit of confidence in the fact that long term he's going to be a big part of our success. So I went that way with him rather than, 'If you don't get it going you could go down,' because I knew he was turning it around."

Video: FLA@WSH: Burakovsky beats Montoya

The points started coming when Burakovsky was promoted to the second line after third-line center Jay Beagle was injured on Dec. 30. Marcus Johansson moved from second-line left wing to Beagle's place on the third line, which cleared a path for Burakovsky.

"He wasted a lot of time thinking about things that weren't in his control, and I think when he just realized, 'Hey I can only control this,' his game started getting better," Trotz said. "I kept trying to get him moved up, and then when [Beagle] got hurt, we moved Marcus in there and [Burakovsky went] right in there and he's done really good and he's playing a much more confident brand of hockey than he did earlier."

Burakovsky's average time on ice jumped from 11:40 per game through the first 34 games of the season to 14:21 during the past 16, and he has seen increased power-play time.

"You can't argue with results. He's playing better and we don't know where his ceiling is, and he'll keep improving," Williams said. "It's a very instinctual game, and when your head's not right, you're thinking the worst instead of the seeing the puck go into the net, visualizing it going into the net.

"If you think your shot's going to get blocked, then it probably is. He's doing a lot of the right things and he's hanging on to the puck offensively. He's getting first to the net on the forecheck and he's creating a lot of offense for us."

Video: PHI@WSH: Burakovsky ties game in 3rd on one-timer

Playing with a three-time Stanley Cup winner (Williams) and an emerging star at center (Kuznetsov) has benefits besides the obvious offensive production. The two have taken on a teaching role in Burakovsky's development.

"They have so much skill, both of them and I think both [Kuznetsov] and [Williams] can really skate and handle the puck and have a really good sense of the game," Burakovsky said. "I think I'm there too; I'm a good skater and can see the game pretty well. I think it's a perfect match for us. I mean, it's not really hard to produce when you're playing with two guys like that."

Kuznetsov and Williams have encouraged Burakovsky to be more vocal in practice and during games. It's paid off: He's been calling for the puck and putting in the net.  

"They recognize he's a good player and they recognize that they have a lot of parts to be a really good line and they've got the experience and the creativity part of it as well," Trotz said. "They're good leaders. [Kuznetsov] at a young age (23) is very mature, and you'd be crazy not to listen to Justin Williams from all his experiences. I think [Burakovsky's] bought into that and they've been a pretty good line."

Video: NYI@WSH: Burakovsky cleans up mess to give Caps lead

Williams played with Burakovsky on the second line at the beginning of the season and said the player he sees now is more self-assured and assertive than the one a few months ago.

"As a young guy, calling for the puck, maybe he was a little shy about doing that," Williams said. "You certainly can't be that way; you have to use every guy on the ice. When he calls for the puck, we give it to him. We've had a good little run here."

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