Six seasons and nearly 250 games into his NHL career, Brett Connolly has finally found a comfort level with a club, a couple of linemates and, more importantly, his own game.
“This is the first time that I’ve really felt something with a line,” Connolly said of skating with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky. “In my career, I’ve been all over the place, really. So, for now, to stick with a line and be producing, I feel my game is really good right now. I feel strong. I feel confident.”
And it shows.
Over the past eight games, the 24-year-old has racked up four goals and an assist. Only Justin Williams (6) and T.J. Oshie (5) have more goals during that timeframe for the streaking Caps.
On the season, Connolly now has eight goals in 33 games. A year ago, he posted nine goals in 71 contests with the Bruins.
“Conno is a finisher. There’s a reason he was drafted where he was; he’s got real good finish around the net,” Coach Barry Trotz said recently, referring to Connolly being selected sixth overall by the Lightning in 2010.
Trotz said reason for the uptick in Connolly’s production is twofold: he’s developed good chemistry Eller and Burakovsky and he’s finally able to play fast and loose now that he’s completely comfortable with the Caps’ system.
“He’s playing the right way,” Trotz continued. “He’s playing hard. I think early in the season, some of his systematic decisions weren’t right. But now he’s got them down pretty good and it’s allowed him to play without thinking. He’s gotten used to how we play and his linemates and I think he’s got a skill set that can produce.”
Although Connolly’s only managed a couple of assists, he reminded everyone on Monday night that he can do more than just finish. He’s able to make plays, too. Midway through second period of the Caps’ 6-1 romp over the visiting Hurricanes, the 6 foot 3, 194-pound winger dished a touch pass right into Dmitry Orlov’s wheelhouse. And the defenseman delivered a one-timer from the point that put the Caps ahead 3-1.
The goal also underscored the cohesiveness the third line has found. The play began with Eller dropping the puck for Burakovsky on the cycle. Burakovsky then hooked off and zipped a cross-zone pass to Connolly, who deftly dished the puck right to Orlov.
Chemistry is often a hard thing to quantify. But you know it when you see it. And, right now, Eller, Connolly and Burakovsky definitely have it.
“Ever since they put me with Lars and Bruky consistently, it’s been really good,” Connolly said. “I think we’ve just found something here with that line. We’ve had some really good chemistry. That’s kind of what you’re looking for—you want to gel with some guys, and I think we’ve done that lately. I see it continuing. We know where each other are on the ice. We’ve been getting chances every game for the last three weeks. It’s just a matter of sticking with it, keep being confident and bear down on our chances when we get them.”
It also helps that Connolly is now getting a sweater on the regular. After Monday’s game, he’s suited up in a season-high 16 straight games. Over the first two-plus months, he was in and out of the lineup as Trotz tinkered with the lines and gave a couple of prospects a look.
“It was hard,” Connolly conceded. “It was one of those things where you don’t want to be sitting out and you feel like you deserve to be in there. You go in there, you play well and then you’re out and you don’t really know what’s going on. It was tough but you just got to stick with it. The coaches were good with me and it paid off obviously.”
If he keeps producing at his current clip, it could pay off for Connolly in a literal sense, too. He’s a restricted free agent at season’s end.
But all that’s a long ways off. Connolly said he wants to stay in the moment.
“It’s been a good little stretch here,” he said. “For me, you want to finish the season strong. If I can do that, nobody will remember what happened at the start of the year. We've got a good thing going here. We’ve got a good team. We’ve got four lines that are really good. If we just continue doing what we’re doing and keep getting better every game, we’re going to set ourselves up for a chance at the ultimate goal.”
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