A few weeks into his rookie season last year, when he caught the NHL by surprise with three goals and seven assists in his first 13 games, Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky said he was surprised at how easy the transition was from junior hockey to the NHL.
This season it’s taken 36 games for Burakovsky to get to 10 points and he’s singing a different tune.
“I didn’t really know what it was like when I came in the first year,” said Burakovsky, who netted his fourth goal and 10th point of the season Tuesday night in the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Bruins in Boston.
“I knew it was the best league in the worlds and I was just real happy to be here. The second year you want to find your spot on the team and get up in the lines.
“You think you know everything the second year but that’s the wrong way. You don’t really know how tough the league is yet. You’ve just got to stick with it.”
Burakovsky’s strong rookie season – he netted nine goals and 13 assists in 53 games with the Caps – gave him the chance to start the season on the Caps’ second line. But when he struggled to find the back of the net, scoring just two goals in his first 18 games, Capitals coach Barry Trotz pulled him from the lineup for a couple games in late November, suggesting he talk with Eric Hoffberg, a mental toughness coach.
Burakovsky said the sessions were productive, helping him get through a stretch in which went a total of 25 games without a goal, the longest goal drought of his life.
“The second year, everyone says it’s a hard year,” Burakovsky said. “I realize that now. I’m just trying to stick with it every day. Sometimes you’re not playing well and it seems like everything is going against you. But you have to stick with it and work through it.”
Burakovsky did just that, scoring his first goal in more than two months on Dec. 30 with just 7:22 of ice time, then getting promoted to the second line when Jay Beagle required surgery to repair an injured hand.
On Tuesday night Burakovsky played 16:56 and scored his second goal in four games when he found a seam below the left circle and snapped a beautiful pass from new linemate Evgeny Kuznetsov past Boston goalie Tuukka Rask.
“A great pass and a great release by Burt,” Trotz said. “Most goalies will get across if he cradles it or handles it for a split second. But he got it away and hit the back of the net.”
Burakovsky’s face lit up when asked how he likes playing alongside Kuznetsov.
“When Kuz has the puck, mine and (Justin Williams’) job is to find open ice because we know Kuzy can give us the puck. If we’re open for like a half second the puck is going to be there, so our job is just to find open ice and Kuzy can really find the open (passing) lanes.”
Burakovsky, who stands 6-foot-1, 178 pounds, also played a strong physical game against the Bruins, dishing out three hits.
“Sometimes I have to be that, too,” Burakovsky said. “It’s not something that happens every game, but you want to battle for the puck and get in there and show that I can do that job, too.”
With Burakovsky now finding his scoring touch and Marcus Johansson fitting in nicely at third-line center – he has two goals and one assist since replacing Beagle on the third line – the Caps might fight it unnecessary to search outside the organization for another forward.
“It’s two-fold for us,” Trotz said. “We’re fortunate that Jojo can go in and play center.
“And it allows Burakovsky to move up to the top six. We anticipate him eventually being that type of player. I think he’s been trending lately because of his play, looking more like the player we know he will be.
“He’s confident with the puck, he’s shooting the puck, he’s playing with some pace and making good decisions with and without the puck. It gives him an opportunity to get those minutes up and getting some confidence in his game.”
Burakovsky says that while Beagle’s injury is unfortunate, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for him to show his worth as a top-six forward.
“The last 10-12 games it’s been really good,” he said. “It’s going the right way now. I really feel like I can do stuff out there. I feel really good in my legs and my body feels really good.”