Brett Connolly is the Caps’ hottest scorer with three goals in two games, but this past week almost never happened.
With the team finally healthy, Barry Trotz has a tough decision to make every game with 13 forwards and only 12 spots in the lineup. Connolly was going to be scratched for the game on Jan. 11 against Carolina, but Andre Burakovsky came down with an illness before the game and did not play that night or travel with the team to Carolina the next. Connolly did not score on Jan. 11, but he scored a late game-tying goal in Carolina to set up Jay Beagle’s miracle buzzer-beater. In the team’s return from the bye on Thursday, Connolly scored twice including another late, game-tying goal.
This past week really is a perfect encapsulation of how Connolly’s NHL career has gone. A first-round draft pick from the 2010 draft, Connolly is brimming with talent but always seems to be on the end of two extremes. Either he is scoring like one of the Caps’ top offensive players, or he is battling just to earn a jersey every night.
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That pressure seemed to overwhelm Connolly when he first came into the league, but now it is leading him to excel.
“There's just a lot of competition through our lineup which is pushing guys to be better and it's making us a better team,” Connolly said Friday after the team’s morning skate. “We're just looking to keep going here, we're looking to keep pushing each other. We're going to make everybody better, we're going to be a better team because of it.”
Connolly came to Washington in the summer of 2016 as an unrestricted free agent on a one-year deal worth only $850,000. He became a UFA after the Boston Bruins elected not to give him a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent. For a player to go from a sixth overall draft pick to fighting to playing on a one-year deal just to keep his career alive was quite the fall, but Connolly responded with 15 goals and eight assists to earn himself a new two-year contract with Washington.
“When you're drafted in this league there's a lot of expectations,” Connolly said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit longer for other guys just to find that fit on a team. It all comes within yourself, I think. You're the only person that kind of knows how much you can bring to the table every night and how much potential you have. It comes from within.”
The way Connolly responded again this season after a near scratch cannot be lost on the coaches.
But if it was desperation that was fueling him before, now it’s confidence.
“It's all about feel, getting your touches and playing with confidence,” Connolly said. “I think when you go through these stretches, I've been through these stretches before, just try to get open. It just feels like whenever you're shooting it, it doesn't matter how good of a shot you get off sometimes, it just finds a way in.”
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It’s not hard to see why he may be feeling so confident. In addition to scoring three goals in the past two games, Connolly also has 12 goals on the season. That puts him at third on the team behind only Alex Ovechkin (28) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (13).
“I feel like I’m finally kind of figuring out the game and figuring out the way I need to play,” said Connolly.
Whether he has truly turned the corner on his career or if this is just another high in a career full of extreme highs and lows remains to be seen. But so long as he keeps feeling the pressure and confidence that has fueled him thus far, he should certainly remain among the Caps' top scorers for the season.