WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Earlier this season, Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz reverted to an old rule he had for young guys who were prone to pouting while sitting on the sidelines.
He told Andre Burakovsky he was not going back in the lineup unless he cracked a smile.
That seemed to work.
“He’s always got a smile on his face now,” Trotz said.
And Burakovsky had plenty of reason to be smiling following Wednesday’s 2-1 victory against the New York Rangers in Game 4 at Verizon Center.
The 20-year-old winger tallied both goals for the Capitals as Washington took a 3-1 stranglehold on their second-round series against the Rangers, inching one skate closer to the Eastern Conference finals.
After sitting out the first three games of the postseason -- he made his NHL playoff debut in Game 4 against the New York Islanders -- Burakovsky made an indelible mark on the postseason with his critical pair of markers against Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist Wednesday night.
Burakovsky sliced to the middle of the ice to notch his first goal during the second period, knotting the score at 1 with 3:31 remaining in the frame. He then gave the Capitals a one-goal lead to protect with a beautiful backhander just 24 seconds into the third period.
He was hungry.
“I wanted to prove I don’t belong in the stands,” Burakovsky said.
It’s safe to assume that Burakovsky indeed will remain in the lineup for the Capitals, especially with the way he and his linemates have been playing.
Burakovsky was the difference-maker in Game 4, and his centerman Jay Beagle was the hero of Game 3, scoring on a fluky bounce for the lone goal that stood up in a 1-0 blanking against the Rangers. Veteran forward Troy Brouwer has also been an impactful player throughout the first four games, even if his value isn’t always reflected on the score sheet.
“We want to be the difference every night,” Brouwer said. “That’s what our line prides themselves itself on.”
It’s veteran guys like Brouwer, Beagle and others that have been critical in leading the way for their lesser-experienced, exuberant counterparts like Burakovsky and first-round breakout star Evgeny Kuznetsov.
They have reined them in when necessary and bolstered their spirits when needed. They’ve showed them how to buy in and do the little things right.
So when Burakovsky does more than just score goals, he also sacrificed his body in blocking a heavy shot from Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein in the third period, those veterans know they have done their job well.
“We expect that out of everybody on this team,” Brouwer said, pointing out his strong wall play and some of the other details of his game that did not go unnoticed within the team’s dressing room. “For him, it just shows his commitment to wanting to win.”
Said Burakovsky: “No matter how much it hurts, it feels good to block a shot.”
How have the Capitals gotten such important contributions from those players despite the nerve-wracking nature of postseason play?
“Naïve ignorance?” Brouwer joked when asked about the pair’s ability to handle such big moments.
While Kuznetsov -- by virtue of his five seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League -- is the more seasoned of the two, Burakovsky’s innocent demeanor makes it pretty easy for him to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
“Burkie, I think he’s just such a loose personality,” veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik said, chuckling. “I think sometimes he’s such a free spirit, he can’t even get nervous in those situations.”
Orpik commended Burakovsky’s attitude this spring, noting that instead of sulking while he was scratched the first three games of the playoffs, he worked even harder to get back into the lineup.
“A lot of times you see guys kind of going in a bad direction and that affects everybody in the room,” Orpik said. “He was putting extra work in with our strength coach and just working hard every day.”
Those contributions will need to continue if the Capitals want to advance to the Eastern Conference finals for only the third time in franchise history.
Though they have a commanding lead on the series, the advantage is a deceiving one considering how evenly these teams are matched.
“This is a Presidents’ Trophy team,” Orpik said of the Rangers. “It’s not a fluke.”
What few predicted about this deep, skilled and speedy Rangers team is that they would have this much trouble producing offense. The team’s top line got on the score sheet Wednesday night with a perfectly-executed sequence that was capped by a beautiful finish off the rush by center Derick Brassard, but that was it.
Brassard now has five goals this postseason and his contributions are becoming pretty lopsided. No one else on the roster has more than two. Capitals netminder Braden Holtby has been sublime this series, and has held the Rangers to just five goals over four games.
“[We need to] score goals,” said winger Carl Hagelin, who was denied by Holtby on a penalty shot in the third period. “I think that’s the bottom line.”
The Rangers’ finesse game has been met with clogged shooting lanes, blocked shots and bitter clashes for the dirty areas of the ice. They haven’t been able to solve these problems.
They have one game to figure it out.
“It’s definitely not over yet. Our group knows that and we’ll continue to lay it all on the line here,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. “We can control everything that has happened this series, so it’s the spot we’ve put ourselves in. So for us, we’ve got to find a way to dig ourselves out.”