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Caps' Brett Connolly settling in, producing after a disjointed start to the season

Caps' Brett Connolly settling in, producing after a disjointed start to the season

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.

RELATED: Coaches declare Caps the favorite to win the Cup

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.”

MORE CAPITALS: Caps power play is on fire

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John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

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John Carlson agrees to big-money deal to stay with the Capitals

On Friday, the Capitals shipped out Philipp Grubauer and Brooks Orpik to clear space on the salary cap for John Carlson's massive contract extension.

On Sunday night, Carlson signed on the dotted the line. 

The 28-year-old became the latest core Cap to sign a long-term deal, inking an eight-year extension that will carry an $8 million average salary. 

His cap hit is now the second highest on the team—behind Ovechkin’s $9.538 million charge and just ahead of Kuznetsov’s $7.8 million hit.

With Carlson locked up, the defending Stanley Cup champion now has the majority of its core signed through at least the 2019-20 season. Among the players with at least two years remaining on their deals are forwards Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nickas Backstrom and Lars Eller, defensemen Carlson, Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov and goaltender Braden Holtby.

The Carlson news did not come as a surprise.

The Caps wanted to keep him. Carlson, who makes his offseason home in Washington, wanted to stay with the club that drafted him 27th overall in 2008. And on Friday night in Dallas, GM Brian MacLellan all but guaranteed that a deal was going to happen when he said, “We’re close and hopefully we can close the deal here over the next 24 hours.”

It ended up taking a little more than 24 hours, but in the end MacLellan got his D-man.

“John has been an exceptional and consistent player for our franchise and has blossomed into being one of the top defensemen in the NHL,” said MacLellan in a statement on Sunday. “Defenseman like John are a rare commodity in our League and, at 28 years of age, we feel he is just entering his prime.”

Indeed, Carlson notched a career-high 15 goals and 53 assists last season, and his 68 points led all NHL defensemen. He also became the eighth defensemen in Caps’ history to record 60 points in a season and the first since Mike Green accomplished the feat in 2009-10. Meanwhile, Carlson’s average ice time (24:47) also marked a career high.

“As a right-handed defenseman, John plays in all key situations and has contributed greatly to our team’s success on the special teams,” MacLellan added. “We are pleased for both parties to have come to an agreement and for him to continue his great career as a Washington Capital.”

With Carlson under contract, the Caps now have a little more than $13 million in cap space underneath the $79.5 million ceiling, according to www.capfiendly.com. Michal Kempny, Jay Beagle, Alex Chiasson and Jakub Jerabek are all unrestricted free agents, while Tom Wilson, Devante Smith-Pelly, Travis Boyd and Madison Bowey are restricted free agents.

Carlson’s also signing kicks off a big week for MacLellan.

In addition to negotiating with the free agents he hopes to retain, he’s expected to have a formal interview with associate coach Todd Reirden, who is the leading candidate to replace Barry Trotz as head coach.

So buckle up, there figure to be a few more important announcements in the coming days.

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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

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Interested teams have begun reaching out to John Carlson

Free agency does not start until July 1, but John Carlson's agent is already taking calls from other interested teams.

The interview period began at 12 a.m. on Sunday morning, which means teams are now able to reach out to any potential free agents, but no contracts can be signed until July 1. While Brian MacLellan said Friday that a new deal with Carlson to keep him in Washington was "really close," Carlson's agent, Rick Curran, has made it clear there was no deal in place yet as of Sunday.

So does this mean Carlson now has one foot out the door?

Not necessarily.

At this point in the negotiation, Carlson has a major advantage and that advantage is time. Sunday's interview period is just another way to hold the Caps' feet to the fire. The closer we get to July 1, the more pressure the team is under to get a deal done.

But the Caps still have some leverage too.

“I love it here and all that,” Carlson said during on breakdown day. “I want to stay here, but there's more to it than that.”

By rule, as his current team, the Caps are the only team that can offer Carlson an eight-year deal.

So Carlson may have turned up the heat a few degrees on the Caps, but it's not time for fans to worry just yet.

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