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Connolly has begun carving out a role with the Caps

Connolly has begun carving out a role with the Caps

If there was one Capital who desperately needed a productive night Friday it was Brett Connolly.

And then, as if on cue, the big right wing delivered in Washington's 3-1 win over the Jack Eichel-less Sabres at Verizon Center.

Connolly chipped in with the primary assist on the Capitals' first goal. And in the third period, he helped close out the visitors with a clutch tally on the power play with 4:55 left to play.

The assist on Daniel Winnik’s first period marker was Connolly’s first helper this season. The goal, meanwhile, was Connolly's first since Oct. 30 (and second in 12 games played this season).

“It’s nice to get out there and play consistently and be out there and feel a part of it,” Connolly said. “And to be in some key situations. I was happy it could pay off tonight with a goal and a win. Hopefully we can keep rolling them up.”

It’s been an uneven season for Connolly as far production and role. Both, however, seem to be trending in a positive direction for the 24-year-old, who has spent eight games as a healthy scratch this season.

With T.J. Oshie sidelined week-to-week with an upper body injury, the Capitals are down to 12 forwards, meaning Connolly no longer has to wonder if he’ll be in the lineup. More important, perhaps, he’s now getting a regular shift on the second power play unit, lining up in the middle of the diamond.

Which, of course, is where the puck found his stick against the Sabres.

Anders Nilsson turned back Alex Ovechkin’s initial shot, but the Buffalo goalie could not recover in time to stop Connolly, who had an empty net to fire the rebound into.

“It was a good time in the game to get one,” Connolly said. “I’ve played in that spot before.... It’s a good spot for me. I got a good shot. I just want to use it. I was happy to see that land on my tape.”

Coach Barry Trotz says Connolly’s skillset could make him a productive player with the man advantage.

“He’s dangerous if he’s got time in the middle,” Trotz said. “He can shoot it pretty good. He has those sniper qualities and [he] compete[s] on those loose pucks. He’s got good instincts in that [slot] area. I think that’s something that he can keep growing in his game.”

Trotz’s trust in Connolly is also growing. The former first round pick has now played in five consecutive games, his longest stretch of the season. On Friday, he skated 14:56, his second highest ice time total since joining the Capitals.

“There’s a lot of games this month and moving forward because there’s a little bit more of a condensed schedule,” Trotz explained. “So we’ve been needing those guys to contribute and try not to play Ovi and [Nicklas Backstrom] and those [top] guys 20 minutes a night. If we can spread the wealth, if you will, it will pay us dividends [because] we’ll be a little fresher [later in the season].”

Two goals and three points probably isn't the type of start Connolly (or the Caps) hoped he'd have. But Trotz sounds bullish on Connolly's potential now that he's settling in.

“Conno he has a real set of hands and he’s scored in the past,” Trotz added. “That’s sort of his player identity. He’s getting some confidence. He’s skating really well. I think he’s getting comfortable with us [and] I’m getting comfortable with him.”

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With the season on the line, the Capitals remain confident heading into Game 7

With the season on the line, the Capitals remain confident heading into Game 7

ARLINGTON, Va. – While Capitals fans woke up breathing into paper bags on Wednesday trying not to hyperventilate, the team was all smiles as it skated onto the ice for the morning skate. While the curse of playoff failures past still clearly resonates through a nervous fan base, there was nothing but confidence coming out of MedStar Capitals Iceplex.

“It’s a positive mood,” Carl Hagelin said. “But at the same time, you can see that guys are focused. I think that’s a big part of it, too, being focused going in and knowing that first shift is going to be key.”

The newfound confidence stems from last year’s playoff success which included a dominant 4-0 Game 7 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.

“I think the last year experience what we have against Tampa helps a lot,” Alex Ovechkin said. “We have the same motivation, we have the same atmosphere. Of course it's not for Stanley Cup Final, it's for second round."

“Until you go through it and you've had success, then you can only talk so much about it,” head coach Todd Reirden said. “Eventually you have to go through it. Our core group has gone through it, and we'll use that as a positive tonight and go about our business."

Unlike last year’s Game 7, however, this one will come in Washington which should give an advantage to the Caps.

The home team has gone 6-0 in this series thus far and Washington has looked like two different teams playing at Capital One Arena and in Raleigh.

While the true advantage of home-ice throughout the league is debatable, clearly it has mattered in this series and, according to the team, the importance of having the home crowd certainly matters to them.

“When the fans cheering for you in your big moment, block shots or kill the penalty and the fans get into it right away, you feel it and it gives you more energy and motivation," Ovechkin said.

"Home ice has been a big advantage in this series,” Reirden said. “I expect our crowd to give us the lift that they have thus far. Right from the start of the playoffs they've given us a boost, I think different than in past years, and it's allowed us to have more success at home.”

One player who will need to step up his game if the Caps hope to extend their season will be Evgeny Kuznetsov. One of the most dominant players in last year’s postseason, Kuznetsov has been held to just five assists and no goals in six games.

Kuznetsov enters Game 7 knowing he needs to be better than he has been to this point.

“I think that is how everyone feels when you lose a game in the playoffs,” he said. “You always feel like you did something wrong and you are not fully there and you know it.”

While the pressure of a Game 7 can wear on some players, however, Kuznetsov said that he looks forward to these moments. Kuznetsov was the Game 7 hero in 2015 when he scored the game and series-winning goal against the New York Islanders.

“Game 7 is Game 7,” Evgeny Kuznetsov said. “It is fun to play.”

In the past we have seen a tentative Capitals team take the ice, play tight and collapse when things did not go their way. A more experienced team will take the ice on Wednesday knowing that things will not go completely their way in the game, but with the confidence that they are good enough to overcome those obstacles, win and advance.

“I just think unexpected stuff happens and being mentally tough is really important in these games and just having confidence and trust in one another,” John Carlson said. “A lot can go astray, a lot can change quickly and with both of the teams’ backs against the wall, that’s what you rely on and fall back on.”

“You’ve got to be prepared for everything,” Reirden said. “In this situation you need to come back to your foundations as a group, as a system, as a team. That never changes, regardless of what happens within the game. So you've got a system and that's your security blanket, and you've got that structure in place. Where the game goes from there is going to be decided by the players executing that system and that game plan. Every [Game 7] plays out a little bit different. There's crazy swings. It's a fun time to be playing in these type of games and our guys will grow from it no matter what."


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NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Bruins, Sharks eliminate Maple Leafs, Golden Knights in Game 7s

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NHL Playoffs 2019 Roundup: Bruins, Sharks eliminate Maple Leafs, Golden Knights in Game 7s

With two Game 7s lined up Tuesday, the daytime was filled with anxiety and curiosity over which teams would come out on top. The Maple Leafs were looking to end a streak of Game 7 losses to their rival Bruins, and the Golden Knights were looking to continue their quest toward returning to the Stanley Cup Final and perhaps getting the job done this year.

However, the games took a wild turn, as Boston was able to easily cruise past Toronto and the Sharks were able to comeback from a 3-0 deficit to win in overtime. Here's how each game played out.

Bruins top Maple Leafs in another Game 7, 5-1

Game 7 seems to happen naturally between these two teams, and yet again, it was Boston who was able to easily win this one with a 5-1 victory.

The beginning of the first period was seemingly quiet, but in the last six minutes, the Bruins turned on the jets. Joakim Nordstrom scored after putting a pass from the top of the circle past Frederik Andersen to make it 1-0 for Boston. Just three minutes later, Marcus Johansson scored on a quick shot that made it 2-0 heading into the second.

John Tavares was able to cut the lead to one early in the second, but Sean Kuraly went top-shelf to restore the Bruins' two-goal lead in the first two minutes of the third.

Charlie Coyle and Patrice Bergeron added two more for Boston to guarantee the win and move onto the second round, and Tuukka Rask made 31 saves in the win. This is the third time in the last decade and the second year in a row that the Maple Leafs have fallen to Boston in seven games in the first round.

Sharks stun Golden Knights with 5-4 OT win

It was an interesting night for the Sharks to say the least. After trailing 3-0 after two periods, it seemed as if the season was over, but a costly major penalty for Vegas led to a comeback and eventual overtime victory for San Jose.

William Karlsson opened the scoring halfway through the first after jumping on a loose puck and firing it past Martin Jones. Cody Eakin added to the lead 10 minutes into the second to make it 2-0, and later, to start the third, Mark Stone struck to make it 3-0.

However, Cody Eakin then cross-checked Joe Pavelski in the head, receiving a five-minute major that led to a lengthy power play for San Jose and changed the momentum of the game. That's when the Sharks scored four goals on the lengthy man advantage.

Logan Couture struck first, scoring on a pass from Kevin Labanc to make it 3-1. A minute later, Tomas Hertl redirected an Erik Karlsson point shot past Fleury to pull San Jose within one. Couture put home his second of the night soonafter, then Labanc had a goal of his own to give San Jose a 4-3 lead with seven minutes remaining.

The Golden Knights were able to tie it with 47 seconds left, as Jonathan Marchessault was able to one-time a feed from Reilly Smith past Jones to make it 4-4. However, the Sharks eliminated Vegas after Barclay Goodrow deked the puck past Fleury in the final minute of the first extra period.

San Jose will face Colorado in the second round, which kicks off Thursday.