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Connolly facing friends for Capitals against Lightning in East Final

Forward came up through AHL with Kucherov, Johnson, Palat

by Corey Long / NHL.com Correspondent

TAMPA -- Brett Connolly has plenty of history with Tampa Bay Lightning forwards Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat from their days in the American Hockey League, and the Washington Capitals forward hopes to get the better of them in the Eastern Conference Final.

Connolly, who was selected by Tampa Bay in the first round (No. 6) of the 2010 NHL Draft, played for Syracuse, Tampa Bay's AHL affiliate, where he was teammates with Johnson, Palat and Alex Killorn when they made the Calder Cup Final in 2013. Kucherov and Connolly were teammates with Syracuse the following season.

"These are guys that I started with," Connolly said Thursday. "I've got some friends. ... Killorn, Johnson, Palat. I played a couple years with [center Steven] Stamkos and [defenseman Victor] Hedman. These are guys that I'm familiar with and I'm excited to make it as difficult on them as possible. It's going to be a lot of fun."

 

[RELATED: Complete Lightning vs. Capitals series coverage]

 

Game 1 of the best-of-7 series is at Amalie Arena on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

Connolly, who played with the Lightning from 2011-15, was expected to be part of the core that would shape their future. However, when Kucherov, Johnson and Palat were making a name for themselves on "The Triplets" line in the 2014-15 season with Tampa Bay, Connolly was fighting to stay in the lineup.

"These are guys that elevated their game when I was younger and kind of established themselves with this organization before I did, and ultimately that's why I was moved out," said Connolly, who was traded to the Boston Bruins for two second-round draft picks at the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline. "I'm going to try and have my best game every single night. I'm ready to go. Those are close friends for sure, but it's all out the window when that puck drops tomorrow night. It's going to be a lot of fun to go at those guys."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm5: Connolly beats Murray five-hole

Connolly is glad his friends have excelled with the Lightning but is motivated to prove he has developed into a better player since his time with Tampa Bay. The 26-year-old said he appreciates what the Lightning organization did for him as a young player but he wants to reward the Capitals for their part in helping his game reach the next level.

Connolly, who signed a one-year contract with the Capitals on July 1, 2016, and a two-year contract July 1, 2017, had 27 points (15 goals, 12 assists) in 70 games during the regular season and has three points (two goals, one assist) in 12 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

"I think coming to Washington I've gotten a really good opportunity to kind of do what I was drafted to do and create offense," Connolly said. "Maybe not at the highest level in terms of ice time and all that, but they've shown a lot of confidence for me to just grow as a player and be confident and create offense. I think the styles fit me. I've kind of had to change my game a little bit."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Connolly fires wrist shot past Murray

Connolly, who scored 27 goals in his first 210 NHL games, has 30 with the Capitals in 136 games.

"I think once you've had a couple good years in a row you kind of start to get more confident and believe in your abilities a little more," he said. "It just comes a little more natural. My head is clear and I'm happy with the way things have gone in the last couple of years. I've found a way to contribute here in the playoffs and that's another step in the right direction for me."

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