Zach Sanford is playing like a guy who doesn’t want to come out of the lineup.

Or head back to Hershey, for that matter.

One game after scoring his first NHL goal, the Capitals rookie got another in Saturday’s 3-2 shootout loss in Detroit. At times, in fact, Sanford was Washington’s most effective forward as he racked up a career-high three shots on goal.

And like his milestone tally a week ago—the game-winner in a wild 6-4 victory over the Ducks—Sanford’s goal against the Red Wings was also a big one.

The Caps, fresh off their five-day bye, had been scuffling for much of the game when Sanford struck late in the second period to trim Washington’s deficit to 2-1.

The play began with Lars Eller gathering a loose puck in neutral ice and then flicking a backhanded saucer pass right onto Sanford’s stick blade. Sanford took it from there, ripping a shot through Thomas Vanek and past Petr Mrazek’s blocker.

“It was a turnover by them that Lars was able to pick it up,” Sanford said of the goal. “It actually happened the same way as my first goal last weekend. Nice pass by Lars. I was just trying to get off quick and it found its way through.”

Sanford’s first pro season has, on occasion, been a trying one for the Boston College product. He started the season in Washington, but managed just a single assist in his first 19 games before being sent to the minors to get more playing time and, just as important, regain his confidence. He was recalled for one game in mid-December, but again he went without a point and skated fewer than 10 minutes.

 

The 22-year-old’s latest stint in Washington, however, has gone much differently.

Against Anaheim, Sanford wasn’t having his best game through the first two periods. But then it happened: Brett Connolly fed him the puck in the waning moments of a tied game…and he snapped it into the net for his first NHL goal.

For Sanford, it was both a relief as well as confirmation that he can produce at this level.

After that game—the Caps’ last before the bye—Sanford was sent back to Hershey. He took the demotion in stride, traveled to Bridgeport, Conn., and less than 24 hours later was the Bears’ best player, registering two goals and four shots on net.

When the Caps returned to action on Friday, he and fellow prospect Jakub Vrana were both recalled for the trip to Detroit and New York. Coach Barry Trotz decided that Sanford had earned the right to suit up against the Red Wings, but the coach also indicated that he would chose between Sanford and Vrana on a day-to-day basis.

Trotz said he doesn’t consider the two to be in competition as the team seeks a long term replacement for Andre Burakovsky, who is out until mid to late March with a broken hand. But judging by Sanford’s hustle in Detroit, he certainly sees it that way.

Assuming Sanford is back in the lineup Sunday at Madison Square Garden, he said he expects the Caps to put forth a crisper, more consistent effort against the Rangers after slogging through a slow start Saturday at The Joe.

“Four or five days off is definitely tough to come back from in the middle of the season with just one practice,” he said. “But getting a game under our belt today was good for us. I think we’ll be back to our normal legs tomorrow.”

Related: Caps rusty coming off bye week, fall to last-place Red Wings