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Burakovsky and Vrana's slow start could be a problem down the line

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Burakovsky and Vrana's slow start could be a problem down the line

It’s been a heck of a start to the season for the Capitals’ big stars. In four games, Alex Ovechkin has eight goals, Evgeny Kuznetsov has eight assists, Nicklas Backstrom has six points and T.J. Oshie has four points.

But there are two players in the top six who have been fairly quiet and it is two players the team needs to have big seasons from.

Andre Burakovsky looked poised for a breakout season in 2016 when he scored two goals in the season opener. A 26-game goalless streak followed leading Barry Trotz to scratch Burakovsky. But, in the playoffs, Burakovsky was given a promotion to the top line and responded with three goals in three games.

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That was how he ended the 2016-17 season. So far, that finish has not carried over to this season despite playing alongside Backstrom and Oshie as Burakovsky has just two assists. He has not been terrible, but he has not looked like the breakout player the Caps were hoping for.

“Burky's pressing a little bit at times,” Trotz said to reporters Thursday after the team’s practice. “I'd like to see him hit the net. You can't score if you don't hit the net and I think he's got to put the puck on the net. He's getting some really great looks. When I do chances most nights, I'll put 65 grade A failed because he missed the net.”

Burakovsky has only hit the net four times in four games, but has five missed shots.

But he is not the only player in the top six without a goal. Jakub Vrana, who had to compete in training camp to make the team, has been playing with Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. He has not looked out of place in the NHL, but while his line is producing at a frenetic pace, he is not with just three assists.

“Actually, I just sat with [Vrana] and just went over some little details that he can continue to get better at as a young player,” Trotz said, “So he doesn't get jammed up that, you know, I'm not scoring so I'll start cheating in this area.”

Now let’s be clear, recording two assists and three assists in four games is not bad. The issue is not that they are playing poorly, the issue is that they have not been able to put away their scoring opportunities and if frustration over those missed opportunities will ultimately affect their game.

“Mostly offensive young guys, they think that total validation is scoring in this league and it's really not,” Trotz said. “We talked about being sustainable in this league. If you're not scoring then there's so many things that you can do for your team and the little details away from the puck, how to get the puck back. Very similar to things that I've said to [Alex Ovechkin] when I first got here, you say to the young guys, you do what you do with the puck. You can score, you can do those things, but do what I want you to do when you don't have the puck so you can have it more so you can do what you do.”

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In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

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In a game that was all about offense, it was a penalty kill the sealed the win for the Caps

The big story out of Wednesday's win was the return of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as linemates. The new lines sparked the Caps' offense as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead over the Ottawa Senators. But despite the offensive burst, it was a key penalty kill in the second period that won the game.

Midway through the second period, Ottawa forward Ryan Dzingel finally stopped the bleeding with a goal to make it 4-1. At that point, the game was still seemingly well in hand. Washington had dominated to that point and there was no reason to think the Senators would come back. Even when Dzingel scored the goal, it did not feel like momentum was shifting back in the Senators' favor.

That all changed 30 seconds later.

Alex Ovechkin was called for high-sticking and when play was stopped, Nicklas Backstrom tussled with Ben Harpur and both players were sent to the box leading to a 4-on-3 for Ottawa. Just 44 seconds in, Tom Wilson was called for a slash giving the Senators 1:16 of a two-man advantage to work with. Just one goal would have made it a game. The deficit would have been cut to 2 with over a period remaining.

A game that had seemed all but over suddenly seemed to be somewhat in doubt. Yes, Ottawa still had a steep hill to climb, but a power play goal would have made a comeback seem possible.

But then, the Caps' much-maligned penalty kill unit stepped up and killed off both penalties to keep the lead at 4-1.

How important was that kill?

"When we're on 5-on-3 that was huge," Barry Trotz said after the game. "They didn't score there, I knew we were going to win. I didn't know just by how much, but I knew we were going to win."

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Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

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Why now? Barry Trotz explains his decision to reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom

Barry Trotz did seemingly everything he could to avoid it, but secretly he was thinking just as much about reuniting Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom as you were. He surprised everyone on Wednesday by putting the two back together on the top line and the move had instant results as the Capitals battled to a 5-2 win over the Ottawa Senators.

A 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on Monday highlighted the team’s top-six struggles at even strength. Ovechkin, Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, Evgeny Kuznetsov all were struggling to produce at the level the Caps need in order to be successful.

You can talk about wanting to avoid making the team too top-heavy all we want, but in the end, being top-heavy is better than not producing at all.

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So with the team’s top players still struggling, the talk after the Calgary game all focused on whether Trotz would consider putting Ovechkin and Backstrom back together, a combination that has been incredibly successful for the Caps in the past.

Trotz, however, seemed hesitant to make the move.

The lines remained unchanged at practice. When asked why not reunite Ovechkin and Backstrom, he told reporters after Tuesday’s practice that he didn’t feel like it. He told the Sports Junkies on Wednesday that Ovechkin can be difficult to play with and that it was hard to find matches for him.

And yet, when the players took to the ice for warmups on Wednesday prior to the game against Ottawa, Ovechkin and Backstrom were together again.

“I've been thinking about it for a while,” Trotz said.

It is obvious why Trotz would put Ovechkin and Backstrom back together. Their chemistry was evident in Wednesday’s game. But Trotz has avoided making that move up to now through the first quarter of the season.

“[Ovechkin] demands such presence,” Trotz said. “He's the greatest goal-scorer in his generation, I've said that many times, and you need a very intelligent player and you have to get used to playing with him because when he gets into those areas … he can score in those tight windows which any other players can't. It's as much getting used to playing with someone else and all that.”

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“By playing [Evgeny Kuznetsov] for such a long time with [Ovechkin] too,” Trotz added, “It opens up some windows so that we have those options.”

Basically, Trotz’s reasoning is that players need to adjust and learn how to play with Ovechkin. He always knew he could go back to Ovechkin-Backstrom, but it is much harder to start with Ovechkin-Backstrom and split them up out of necessity.

As Trotz would later put it on Wednesday, “If you love something you set it free, if it comes back it was meant to be.”

Clearly, it was meant to be as there’s just no denying that when Ovechkin and Backstrom are together, their play ascends to another level.