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Burakovsky has Caps' second line humming

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Burakovsky has Caps' second line humming

Through his first 38 games this season, Andre Burakovsky had four goals, six assists and a healthy helping of self-doubt.

Today, the Capitals’ lanky left winger celebrates his 21st birthday on the hottest scoring streak of his NHL career. Since being promoted to the Caps’ second line following  a hand injury to center Jay Beagle, Burakovsky has six goals and seven assists in his last 10 games and five goals and three assists during a seven-game scoring streak.

“Two things have happened,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said when asked about Burakovsky’s sudden breakout.

“No. 1, when he started where he did this year (on the fourth line) he let that affect his play. I don’t want to say this, but seeing what I’ve seen with other players, he was doubting himself. He wasn’t quite accepting where he was at in his positon and therefor he let everything else clutter what he needed to do in terms of his work ethic and all the things to get on track.”

That’s when Trotz suggested Burakovsky sit down with mental strength coach Eric Hoffberg, a former special ops soldier who was hired by the Caps last season.

“All of us tried, but I think (Burakovsky) did a lot of talking with Eric Hoffberg, who got him in a good place. He started getting a little bit more opportunity because he was earning it, even in practice, and he sort of ran with it. But it wasn’t until he really got all the clutter out of his head. So, he wasted a lot of time thinking about things that weren’t in his control. When he realized he could only control (so much) his game started getting better and I tried to get him moved up.”

Burakovsky acknowledges that he let his own expectations, along with being sequestered to the Caps’ fourth line, get in the way of him being a productive player. It wasn’t until he started finding value in the little things – like being a plus player and improving in his own zone – that he began seeing his offense come back.

“When you start getting frustrated, that’s when (bad) stuff is going to come up,” he said. “You just have to stick with it and believe that it’s going to come.

“I’ve been feeling it for a long time now. My game is really coming back and it feels really good right now.”

Of course, playing with a budding star like Evgeny Kuznetsov and a savvy veteran like Justin Williams hasn’t hurt. Over the past 10 games Kuznetsov has two goals and 14 assists and Williams has four goals and five assists.

Williams said he noticed at the start of the season Burakovsky was waiting too long to shoot and his shots were getting blocked or deflected. Now, he’s shooting the puck quicker, making it more difficult to stop.

“That comes with learning the NHL and learning you don’t have enough time. If you think you have two seconds, you have one.

“Guys have good sticks and you’ve got to get your shot off quick. It’s not always how hard it is. It’s how quick you can get it off and how accurate you can be with it.”

With Marcus Johansson expected to rejoin third-line wingers Jason Chimera and Tom Wilson during the Caps’ current three-game road trip, a position he’s likely to keep when Beagle returns from his injury, Burakovsky appears to have nailed down a spot on the Caps’ second line.

“I’m just enjoying playing with him,” Kuznetsov, 23, said. “He listens to me and Willy and we have some connection. You can see we’re all playing better as a line. He’s a smart young guy and he listens to us. It’s a cool moment for us to grow up together as NHL players and I hope we’re going to play many years together.”

Williams, 34, said he’s happy to play alongside a center as talented as Kuznetsov, saying he sees the game like few players in the league.

“Kuzy’s one of the best I’ve ever played with at finding guys and giving them that extra second because of his deception,” said Williams, who’s on pace to have his most productive season in four years.

“He’s very mature for his age on the ice. When he comes to the bench and has something to say you’re going to listen to him because it seems like he thinks the game a step ahead of everyone else. You have to expect the unexpected from him.”

RELATED: Caps counting on healthy Johansson, Orpik

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?

MORE CAPITALS PLAYOFF NEWS:

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

The wait is finally over. 

After two decades, the Capitals are back in the Stanley Cup Final. 

After a convincing 4-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Capitals are in Vegas to take on the Golden Knights. They'll be facing off against a handful of familiar names, with former Caps GM George McPhee, fan favorite Nate Schmidt, and ex-Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fluery are just a few of the names that'll be suiting up for Vegas. 

What will the X-factors in the series be? Who will be the unexpected heroes of Game 1? The action is almost underway, and here are all the details you need to know.

Game 1 Capitals at Golden Knights
Date: Monday, May 28
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV.
TV Channel: NBCSN 
How To Watch Live StreamingNBC Sports App Live Stream
Radio: Capitals Radio Network (106.7 FM)

WHEN IS GAME 1 OF THE CAPITALS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS SERIES?

Game 1 of the Capitals-Golden Knights 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final takes place on Monday, May 28 at 8:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV.

WHAT TV CHANNEL IS GAME 1 OF THE CAPITALS-GOLDEN KNIGHTS SERIES ON?

The TV broadcast of Game 1 between the Capitals and Golden Knights is on NBC. Capitals pre- and postgame coverage takes place on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

5:00 p.m. — Caps Cup Preview
6:00 p.m. — Caps GameDay Live
6:30 p.m. — Caps Face Off
7:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:00 p.m. — Game 1 Capitals vs. Golden Knights
10:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime

WHERE CAN I STREAM CAPITALS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS GAME 1?

Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Golden Knights is available for online stream on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the NBC Sports live stream page.

CAPITALS vs. GOLDEN KNIGHTS GAME 1 OPEN THREAD

Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals digital producer JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.