For as well as the Capitals played in March, through the returns of key veterans Anthony Mantha and T.J. Oshie and improved play in net, it’s been impossible to ignore rookie forward Connor McMichael.
He’s slowly settled into a role at center over the last few games with his speed and play-making ability gradually earning him more and more deserved ice time from Washington coach Peter Laviolette.
McMichael's lines routinely create scoring chances both in quality and quantity, and heading down the stretch of the regular season he’s given the Capitals another bonafide offensive option down the middle.
And perhaps most importantly, he’s as confident as ever.
“I just feel like I’ve gained a lot of confidence the last few weeks,” McMichael said. “Going back to center, I kind of found my stride. Sometimes all it takes is a lucky bounce and I kind of got that in Columbus. Ever since then I feel like I’ve been playing a lot better and been playing my game.”
He had just two goals and one assist in his 13 games in March, but that certainly wasn’t due to a lack of chances for him and his linemates.
At five-on-five in the month of March, McMichael led all forwards on the Capitals (with more than two games played) in Corsi-For (54.05%) and was second in shots percentage (56.25%), second in Expected Goals (63.16%) and first in High-Danger Chances (68.75%).
“He gets chances every night,” Laviolette said last week. “As you mature and you get older and more experienced, you start to feel better in the game and you attack the game even more. It’s a lot for young kids coming into the game.”
Of course, the possession numbers only tell part of the story.
McMichael has improved in recent weeks, ironically, with more responsibility as he’s been moved to center, at all ends of the ice. He said he likes being where the puck is at all times, no matter which of the three zones he’s playing in. In the faceoff circle in March, he won just over 50% of his draws, too.
“Coming in, learning a new system at the start of the year, it was tough,” McMichael said. “When you just get used to it more and more, just doing video with the coaches and just talking with Lavy, you’re working on little parts of your game that you maybe didn’t know you needed to work on before. It’s just something I’ve been focusing on and I thought I’ve been a lot better defensively.”
That ice time has come, as he averaged just over 11 minutes per night in his 13 games in March, which compared to January and February is more than a two-minute increase per game. And even with more ice time, and soon-to-be more games than he’s ever played in a season in his hockey career, he’s avoided the dreaded “rookie wall.”
“He’s more comfortable out there, that’s for sure,” teammate Nicklas Backstrom said. “Looked like he took more responsibility when played center too. He’s grown. He’s still so young and he’s good out there. He’s got a good hockey IQ, good hands and good speed.”
The goals at five-on-five haven’t always fallen for McMichael and his line this season, but the more he helps create offense, the more it seems the puck will find its way in the net. At the very least, having the puck more often than not in the offensive zone hasn’t been a bad thing.
“It’s one thing when you’re always getting scoring chances, it’s a good sign that they’re eventually going to go in,” McMichael said. “But when you do see it cross the line, it’s a lot different feeling. It always feels nice to get one, and I feel whenever you get one, the floodgates kind of open and they all just start going in. Hopefully, that’s going to start happening for me.”
The Capitals remain one of the NHL’s oldest teams. That starts up the middle with Backstrom, Lars Eller, Nic Dowd — all of whom are at least 30 years old. Evgeny Kuznetsov will turn 30 in May.
And then there’s McMichael, the 21-year-old rookie who has elevated his play in the last month to a point where it’s been hard to keep him off the ice.