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'New guys' hope to change Capitals' fate

Brett Connolly, Lars Eller provide Washington with more scoring depth

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- As one of the two "new guys" on the Washington Capitals this season, Brett Connolly still has a bit of an outsider's perspective.

As the Capitals have rolled through their past 19 games (16-2-1 following their 5-0 win against the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday), Connolly has observed a sense of urgency from those who were on the team that won the Presidents' Trophy last season but failed again to advance past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

It's not about wanting to win games in early February, though they seem to be doing that with relative ease. It's about not being satisfied with winning games in early February.

The games the really matter are more than two months away.

"We obviously know that we're winning a lot of games right now, but guys know that we've got to keep playing well and winning games at the right time of the year," Connolly said. "It's a matter of sticking with it. I think the guys know that this group here, it's not going to be like this next year.

"It's kind of this is the year where we do it or we don't."

That's the reality that's been in the back of the Capitals' heads all season. Their roster will probably look a lot different next season with T.J. Oshie, Karl Alzner, Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik scheduled to become unrestricted free agents on July 1 and the Capitals unlikely to have the salary cap space to keep them all.

They know this is it for this this group of players, regardless of whether they win the Capitals' first Stanley Cup championship this season. So they've had the pedal down for two months and have no intention of letting up.

Video: LAK@WSH: Connolly finds Eller to open the scoring

"I've played on other teams where you could win three, four in a row, then you could get maybe a little satisfied and feel too good about yourself," center Lars Eller said. "It doesn't seem like this team is sitting back and feeling too good about themselves."

Eller is the other "new guy" on the Capitals. He was acquired in a trade with the Montreal Canadiens at the 2016 NHL Draft. Connolly signed a one-year contract with the Capitals as an unrestricted free agent on July 1.

The Capitals' hope was that they would help fill their need for scoring depth, which was the difference in their loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season. It wasn't the Penguins' first two lines that hurt the Capitals, but rather their third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel.

"We saw that the bottom part of our roster, we weren't able to match what [Pittsburgh] had in that series," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "So I thought it was a real good move on [general manager Brian MacLellan's] part getting Eller."

Together with Connolly and Andre Burakovsky, Eller has given the Capitals the third line MacLellan and Trotz envisioned last summer. Connolly and Eller each scored goals Sunday after Burakovsky had one in the Capitals' 3-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

Over the past 14 games, they have combined for 18 goals - six each.

"You don't want to get too far ahead of yourself, but it's been a lot of fun," Connolly said. "They've been really good and we've been working with each other every day. We're getting better."

That's the idea. During NBC's telecast of the game on Sunday, it displayed a graphic that broke down the percentage of the Capitals' goals Alex Ovechkin was responsible for each of the past four seasons. Last season, his 50 goals accounted for 20.2 percent of the Capitals' total, which was the highest percentage in the NHL.

Video: LAK@WSH: Connolly, Caps make Kings pay for turnover

It was similar in 2014-15 (22.4 percent), 2013-14 (22.7 percent) and 2012-13 (21.9 percent). With the Capitals having better balance this season, they don't need Ovechkin to score as much. His 25 goals are 14.4 percent of their season total of 174.

So when the Kings matched their Selke Trophy winning center Anze Kopitar and their Norris Trophy winning defenseman Drew Doughty against the line of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Oshie on Sunday, the Capitals didn't flinch.

Playing against the Kings' second line centered by Jeff Carter, Eller finished a feed from Connolly 3:16 into the game to give the Capitals the lead, and they never looked back. Their fourth line of Winnik, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson was their only line not to produce a goal on Sunday, but Beagle scored in Montreal on Saturday.

"I think we've got a good chance here to do something special and we've just got to keep getting better every day," Connolly said. "Hopefully we can keep building our game and keep playing this way at the right time of the year."

No one would blame the Capitals for wishing the playoffs started this week. With 78 points, they're seven points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Penguins for first place in the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference. The Blue Jackets and Penguins each have two games in hand, so maybe the standings are closer than they appear.

But there's no doubt the Capitals are playing their best hockey right now. It was similar at this point last season, and they remember how that ended.

"Last year didn't go the way wanted it to and we have to be ready before the playoffs start," left wing Marcus Johansson said. "So it's going to be a good and important end to the season for us to ramp it up and really get ready for when [the postseason] starts."

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