- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

PITTSBURGH — Andre Burakovsky noticed a number of things while sitting in the press box for the start of the Washington Capitals‘ playoff run last season.

He noticed, for example, that the New York Islanders were active on the forecheck, rarely giving Burakovsky’s teammates time and space. He saw how players focused more on managing the puck, chipping it into the zone only under the right circumstances. Most of all, he noticed that risks were minimized and the safer play was almost made.

“It was more a teaching point than a point for me to play,” Burakovsky said. “I think it was good for me to just see and watch how it is and learn from the stands, but when I got the chance, I wasn’t really thinking a lot. I was just trying to go out there and play hard and skate hard and try to do the best I could.”

What resulted from that period was what Burakovsky now describes as “a really good run” in the playoffs last year. Out of the lineup the first three games, the rookie replaced the injured Eric Fehr starting with Game 4 of that first-round playoff series, then remained in the lineup for the entirety of the second-round series against the New York Rangers.

The ability to plug a hole and quickly adapt when circumstances change is paramount in the postseason, and it’s something both the Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins — their current second-round playoff opponent — have begun to realize.

From suspensions to injuries to substandard play, the two teams have already had to tinker with their lineups entering Game 4 of their second-round series on Wednesday. The Capitals replaced the suspended Brooks Orpik with Taylor Chorney, while Kris Letang’s discipline and the absences of Fehr and Olli Maatta have forced Pittsburgh to turn to Justin Schultz, Derrick Pouliot and Oskar Sundqvist.

Teams expect, if not demand, little to no drop-off when reserves are pressed into service — even in the absence of someone like Letang, a perennial Norris Trophy candidate and the Penguins’ workhorse defenseman. Even if the exact responsibilities are not the same, the performance, on the whole, typically is.

“I mean, you try to mentally prepare for it, I think, but until you’re really out there and playing in the game, it’s tough to really get the full effect of what it’s like,” Pouliot said.

Chorney made his first appearance of the postseason in Game 4 of the Capitals‘ first-round series of the Philadelphia Flyers as Orpik recovered from a concussion. He made his return in Game 2 against the Penguins, with Dmitry Orlov sitting following a costly defensive mistake in the opener.

While sitting out, Chorney also chose to watch games from a suite in the press box — on television in the dressing room is another option — as he wanted to see the whole ice to visualize how he’d approach certain situations.

“You kind of get a better feel for the game when you’re watching up top — especially just the energy in the building and stuff,” Chorney said. “You kind of get a little better feel for the intensity, and I think that that probably serves you well when you get a chance to play.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz tries to frame his healthy scratches not as a form of punishment, but as a learning experience. Schmidt, likely to be out of the lineup on Wednesday in part because of a miscue in Game 3, will be expected to contribute once he returns to the ice — just as Orlov did that night upon his return.

“Everybody who’s in and out of the lineup at this time of year, I think they have a full understanding — and we talked about this going into it — decisions are made for the short term because the series don’t last long sometimes,” Trotz said. “You talk about seven games, possibly, versus 82, so you have to have sort of a short-term mentality. Nothing’s personal. It’s just needed to be done.”

Burakovsky understood that and also appreciated it. Though he had just two goals in his 10 playoff games last year — both on the same night — he finished with a plus-2 rating overall and was not dogged by indecision or a fear of repercussion once he did begin playing.

“Just really pay attention every second out there on the ice from the stands,” Burakovsky said. “See how the game is. It’s so much different. It’s so much faster, so much more physical, and like I said, one bad decision can turn into a goal real quick. [Learning was] something I was trying to do.”

Before Wednesday’s game, the Capitals’ Alex Ovechkin joined the New York Islanders’ John Tavares and Nashville’s Shea Weber as finalists for the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award, with the winner to be announced June 22 during the NHL Awards in Las Vegas. 

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