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Strong play from the third line is making the Caps’ trade deadline decision on Burakovsky much harder

Strong play from the third line is making the Caps’ trade deadline decision on Burakovsky much harder

WASHINGTON – The Capitals scored four goals to force a point against the Florida Panthers on Saturday and three of those four goals came from the third line.

Brett Connolly recorded his second career three-point game with two goals and an assist. Lars Eller scored a goal and an assist and Andre Burakovsky assisted on both of Connolly’s tallies. The one glaring setback to the night was a late penalty from Connolly as he chopped the stick out of Aleksander Barkov’s hands resulting in a slashing call. Florida would score on the resulting power play to win the game.

Overall, however, the improved play of the third line is a good sign for Washington as that line has been a question mark for the majority of the season.

“We have a good mix,” Burakovsky said. “Lars is the horse out there making a lot of good plays and winning almost [every] battle. It’s fun to play with him. And obviously Connolly is a great shooter and a great passer.”

“That’s a positive sign for our line,” Eller said, “Because our team needs that secondary scoring for us to win games. That’s going to be crucial going forward as well.”

With top-nine production being such an important part of a team’s success in today’s NHL, the lack of production from the third line has been concerning.

Eller is currently on pace for 10 goals which would be his lowest output since the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. Connolly has already set a career high in points, but his three goals in the past two games snapped a 13-game goalless drought.

The biggest issue, however, has been Burakovsky who has continued his trend of inconsistent play this season.

Through 49 games, he has only 15 points, putting on pace for 22. That would be his lowest output since his rookie season in 2014-15, a season in which he played just 53 games. That’s not what you would expect from a first-round draft pick in his fifth NHL campaign.

Burakovsky’s play, however, has improved greatly the past two games and he has a goal and two assists to show for it.

“[Burakovsky’s] able to generate some offense now, playing well and capitalizing on chances,” Todd Reirden said.

With the third line finally starting to click, this begs the question, what do the Caps do at the trade deadline?

The Feb. 25 deadline is just over two weeks away and it was believed Burakovsky could be used as trade bait to bring in a forward to jumpstart the third line.

“I think the only thing we're going to look for is, is there a hockey trade to be made, salary for salary, player for player in the forward group,” general manager Brian MacLellan said in January. That seemed like a very clear reference to Burakovsky.

Moving Burakovsky makes sense not just because of his up-and-down play, but because he is on the final year of his deal and would have to be offered a salary of $3.25 million next season in order for the team to qualify him and retain his rights as a restricted free agent. His current level of production does not seem to justify that kind of money.

But if the third line is playing as well as it is now, do you still make a move?

Burakovsky’s career has been plagued by inconsistent play, including in the 2018 playoff run. After playing poorly, he was a healthy scratch for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final. He then rebounded with two goals in Game 7 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The strong play of both Burakovsky and the third line leaves MacLellan with two options. Do you hold on to Burakovsky and hope he continues this level of play into the playoffs in which case you have an incredibly formidable top-nine? Or, do you assume this is just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys and trade him before you get burned when his play begins to drop off again?

Either option is a gamble. The answer may well depend on what other teams are willing to give up for a player like Burakovsky.

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The Capitals are not happy about Anders Lee's hit on Nicklas Backstrom

The Capitals are not happy about Anders Lee's hit on Nicklas Backstrom

John Carlson did not play at all in the round robin and finally returned to action on Wednesday in Game 1 against the New York Islanders. But just on his second shift Carlson, not someone known for fighting, dropped the gloves with Islanders captain Anders Lee. Why? Because Lee had just delivered a late hit to the chest to the unsuspecting Nicklas Backstrom and Carlson was not happy about it. Not one bit.

"It looked real dirty to me," Carlson said. "I think when a guy is kind of coming up and kind of looking back at the pass, I've heard it a lot over the years that they're trying to take that out of the game. More than anything, as a player that's been around, you kind of sense the impact. Nicky doesn't get hit very often, so that should tell you all you need to know. He's probably one of the most aware players in the league. That was my reaction to what happened."

The hit appeared to be to the chest of Backstrom, but the puck was long gone by that point so it was very clearly late. It also seemed to be made worse by the fact that Backstrom did not appear ready for the hit, perhaps because the puck was not close. An unprepared Backstrom was then dropped to the ice by the hit.

Backstrom played only 7:21 for the game and did not appear in the second or third period.

RELATED: BACKSTROM EXITS GAME 1

Carlson was not the only one who was upset following the game.

"It looked extremely late," T.J. Oshie said of the hit. "In the frame I saw, there wasn't even a puck, and it still looked late. It's hard seeing a leader and a player like Backy is not only for our team, but pretty good role model as far as in the NHL, go down like that on a late, cheap play. It's out of our hands."

Head coach Todd Reirden did not have an update after the game saying Backstrom was continued to be evaluated. But even if he did not have much to say on Backstrom's health, he had plenty to say about the hit itself.

“[Backstrom’s] continuing to get looked at," Reirden said. "Obviously, he couldn’t finish the game. It was a late hit on an unexpected player that was in a spot [where] he was extremely vulnerable. So those are some things we saw there. It’s as simple as that. Like I said, late hit, the player wasn’t expecting it and it’s predatory.”

Not surprisingly, the Islanders saw the hit differently.

"I tried to throw the breaks on a little bit there, but I caught him, the end result after that a penalty, a couple of fights."

"It was one of those plays if you come laterally, especially with congestion at the blue line and Anders was making a hockey play. Anders is a strong guy."

Perhaps the biggest difference of opinion between the two teams is what this means going forward. Clearly the Caps thought the hit was dirty and warrants supplementary discipline. The Islanders, however, think the matter is settled.

"It was settled and then the game continued on," Lee said.

"I think the hit was made, they responded, Wilson went after Lee, they fought and that's probably the end of it," Trotz said. "We'll see."

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Todd Reirden expects Lars Eller to be back for Capitals in Game 2 vs. Islanders

Todd Reirden expects Lars Eller to be back for Capitals in Game 2 vs. Islanders

Washington Capitals center Lars Eller is expected to be back in action for Game 2 against the New York Islanders, head coach Todd Reirden said following the Game 1 loss on Wednesday.

Eller did not play in the first game of Washington's Stanley Cup Playoffs run as he awaited clearance by the league after he re-entered the bubble on Sunday. Eller departed Toronto on August 5 for the birth of his second child, Alexander.

Before Eller can rejoin the team, he must test negative for the coronavirus four times over a four-day period

RELATED: HOLTBY'S ROUGH NIGHT AND MORE FROM GAME 1

Eller's return is something Washington will be happy to see, as the team is in desperate need of some help at the center position. Nicklas Backstrom left Wednesday's game with an injury and his status for Game 2 is still unknown. 

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