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Connolly making most of expanded opportunities with Panthers

Forward on pace for best NHL season with new team after signing as free agent

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Brett Connolly couldn't help thinking back to his time with the Washington Capitals during the previous two days.

Connolly returned to Washington for the first time since signing with the Florida Panthers as unrestricted free agent on July 1 and scored a goal in a 4-3 loss to the Capitals at Capital One Arena on Wednesday.

The memories came back easily while retelling stories during dinner with some of his former teammates at Washington forward Tom Wilson's home on Tuesday. Connolly relived some of them again during the video tribute that played on the Capital One Arena scoreboard during the first television timeout Wednesday.

"I owe a lot to these guys, these fans and the coaches," Connolly said. "I've said it a million times before, but I do."

Winning the Stanley Cup with the Capitals in 2018 helped Connolly forge some lifelong bonds and the 27-year-old forward will forever appreciate the career-changing three seasons he spent with Washington. But Connolly has quickly settled into his new life with the Panthers.

He leads Florida with 12 goals in 25 games, including six in his past six games, and is fitting in seamlessly with his new teammates. He'll celebrate Thanksgiving with several of them at defenseman Keith Yandle's home Thursday.

Video: FLA@WSH: Connolly's breakaway goal to tie game

The Panthers begin a nine-game homestand, their longest since entering the NHL in 1993, when they host the Nashville Predators at BB&T Center on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, FS-F, FS-TN, NHL.TV)

"It's been a very easy transition," Connolly said. "The coaching staff, the teammates have been a very comfortable group to come in and be myself. I'm getting a good opportunity here and it's been a good start to the season for me."

On pace for a 39-goal season, Connolly's fast start with Florida is a carryover from 2018-19, when he set NHL career-highs with 22 goals, 24 assists and 46 points in 81 regular-season games playing mostly on Washington's third line. With the Capitals having limited salary cap space to re-sign him and unable to provide the top-six forward role he was seeking, Connolly capitalized on his career season by signing a four-year contract with the Panthers, who were looking to add scoring depth and experience.

He's thriving at left wing on the second line with center Vincent Trocheck and right wing Denis Malgin, helping Florida get off to a 12-8-5 start. Connolly is fifth on the Panthers with 19 points (12 goals, seven assists), putting him on pace to finish with 62.

"He's been really good for us. His production has been very good for us," Panthers coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's got a deceptive shot, can play on the power play. He's scored some big goals for us, timely goals. He added some size (6-foot-3, 192 pounds) to our team as well, and he has the puck a lot."

Connolly joined Florida as a different player than the one who arrived who arrived in Washington as an unrestricted free agent in 2016 after the Boston Bruins chose not to make him a qualifying offer to retain his restricted free agent rights. Selected by the Tampa Bay Lightning with the No. 6 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, Connolly struggled to live up to his high draft position and was traded to Boston on March 2, 2015, for second-round picks in the 2015 and 2016 NHL Drafts.

Video: ANA@FLA: Connolly scores second of the night

The Bruins gave up on Connolly after he had 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in 71 games in 2015-16, and he knew he was running out of opportunities when he signed with the Capitals.

"I was at a crossroads before I came here, there's no question," Connolly said. "Kind of like this group [with Florida], right away I was welcomed in and I was comfortable, and the coaching staff just let me play and let me have fun with it. There was no pressure. I just played and it was a really good environment over there to work on your game and be comfortable."

Bouncing between the third and fourth lines, Connolly scored an NHL career-high 15 goals and had 23 points in 66 games in 2016-17. He followed that with 27 points (15 goals, 12 assists) in 70 regular-season games in 2017-18 and had nine points (six goals, three assists) in 24 Stanley Cup Playoff games to help Washington win its first championship since entering the NHL in 1974. Included in that total was an assist on Lars Eller's winning goal in the Capitals' clinching 4-3 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Vegas Golden Knights.

"He became confident in what his game was, and he was just using his abilities to his strengths, using his shot and getting confident in how he needed to play to score goals," Eller said. "I think he really built that here the last couple years and I'm not surprised to see he's doing well. He always had the talent."

In addition to playing a larger role at 5-on-5 and seeing increased power-play time (1:27 per game, up from 56 seconds), Connolly is enjoying having a leadership role with a transitioning team looking to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

"I knew that opportunity was going to be out there, and they've definitely given me that," Connolly said. "I'm a little older. We've got a little younger team here and, especially in Washington, everybody was older than me here. It's a little different (with Florida); a little more responsibility for me, a little more weight on my shoulders to produce and be a consistent player. It's been a good change, for sure."

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