- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2015

Already rocked by a series of ups and downs halfway through his rookie season, Andre Burakovsky has come to learn how futile any overreaction can be.

On Sunday, not long after scoring what turned out to be the Washington Capitals‘ game-winning goal in a 4-3 victory over Florida, Burakovsky was mobbed by his teammates eager to congratulate the 19-year-old in his first game back on the ice.

The hasty celebration, filled with hugs and handshakes, prevented Burakovsky from unleashing any type of exaggerated gesture. Yet, as he begun to skate toward the bench, a smile on his face, a celebratory fist-bump from Marcus Johansson caught him in the face.

“I wasn’t expecting it at all,” Burakovsky said. “I was just like, whoa, but it was fun.”

The reality checks provided during Burakovsky’s first season haven’t always been kind. After making a seamless transition to playing center, a position he was still learning to play, he cracked the Capitals‘ opening-day roster and even scored a goal in the first game against Montreal.

Consistent playing time started to dwindle after the first month, and as the schedule hit November, Burakovsky found himself drifting from the second line to the fourth line, where he was more frequently skating on the wing.

By December, even that had disappeared. Burakovsky, a first-round pick in 2013, was a healthy scratch for five of the Capitals‘ 13 games, and in order to get him some action, Washington assigned him to Hershey on Dec. 19, allowing him to play in two games in the minor leagues.

He returned to the ice for two of the three games leading up to the Winter Classic, but disappointment struck again on Jan. 1, when Burakovsky found out he would again be scratched. That prevented him from playing outdoors at Nationals Park before a crowd of more than 40,000 people — including his parents, Robert and Pernilla, and his sisters, Alexandra and Anna — in the NHL’s annual marquee event.

“Just been trying to stay positive all the time,” Burakovsky said. “This is my first year in the NHL, so I can’t expect to play on the first line, on the first power play, and all that — 16 minutes per game. I can’t expect that. Of course, it sucks to be out, but I’m just trying to stay positive and work out hard every day to prove I’m not gonna be scratched and I’m supposed to stay on the ice.”

When Burakovsky returned on Sunday, in the 4-3 victory over the Florida Panthers, he played 16 shifts and saw 12 minutes, 55 seconds of ice time — his most extended run since Nov. 22. Coach Barry Trotz slotted him in as the top-line right wing, alongside left wing Alex Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom, to accentuate the duo’s craftiness.

That paid off 5:42 into the third period, when Backstrom couldn’t handle defenseman Jack Hillen’s pass from the left point to the slot. The puck bounced around and Burakovsky reeled it in before flicking it by goaltender Al Montoya into a wide-open net.

“He’s got two guys, I think, that can embrace having a young guy on the wing,” Trotz said. “Just like on the goal he scored — I think Ovi could have probably got it and swung at it, but he just let it go there, and I just think Nicky and Ovi knew that they’re going to help the young guy and realize that he could be a real help for them, too.”

The familiarity with playing right wing, Burakovsky said, also facilitated his return to the ice. Burakovsky hasn’t consistently played in the middle since early December, when he centered the fourth line, and he said the return to the right side felt natural and more comfortable.

That could be where he stays. Trotz said Monday that Burakovsky would likely not center a line again this season unless another player gets injured, but otherwise offered no hints on the lines for Wednesday’s game at Toronto.
“It’s not out of the realm [of possibility], but it’s something that we’ll continue on next year if we want him to be a centerman,” Trotz said.

Not only will consistency remain a challenge for Burakovsky, but so, too, will other players’ performances. Michael Latta was the healthy scratch for the Capitals on Sunday, and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the Capitals‘ first-round pick in 2010, has also been tabbed to sit out at times.

“He’s doing the right things in the dressing room,” right wing Troy Brouwer said. “He’s staying positive. He obviously wasn’t happy about sitting out, which was completely understandable, but he was given a good opportunity to play on that top line — and scoring a goal obviously goes a long way to staying there.”
If there’s one thing Burakovsky has learned, however, it’s that it’s best not to dwell too much on the significance of any one thing.

“I’m just going to prove what I’m good at,” he said. “I’m just gonna do my best. If I just play like I did [Sunday], then I would hope I would stay.”

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