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.”