Andre Burakovsky looked up at the video board, a smile plastered to his face. The replays of his two goals played for the thousands gathered at Verizon Center, and Burakovsky, like all in attendance, was captivated by the displays of wizardry.
The closed-circuit delay, though, had caught up to him, and Burakovsky, recognizing his grin on the thousands of illuminated pixels dangling above center ice, wiped it from his cheeks. He lowered his head and looked forward, with a casual tap on the crown of his head by teammate Joel Ward the only playful expression remaining.
It would be easy to say that on Wednesday, Burakovsky showed maturity beyond his years, but then again, there will likely always be a side of susceptible to such youthful exuberance. The 20-year-old and his “naïve confidence,” as teammate Troy Brouwer coined it earlier in the postseason, had come through for the Washington Capitals, with his goals holding up in a 2-1 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 4 of the teams’ Eastern Conference semifinal series.
“I’ve been struggling a little with shots, and I think I need to shoot more, and the guys have been telling me I need to shoot all the time,” Burakovsky said. “Today, I think I had a couple shots on net that worked out pretty well.”
Braden Holtby had 28 saves, including the stop of a penalty shot in the third period, leaving the Capitals one game away from eliminating the New York Rangers and making an appearance in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time since 1998.
Once Holtby’s shutout streak ended on Wednesday at 100 minutes, five seconds — he allowed a goal to Derick Brassard at 6:12 of the second period — he shared the spotlight with Burakovsky, whose equalizer slightly more than 10 minutes later sent the crowd into a tizzy.
Burakovsky surely had a better option on his second-period goal — Brouwer was demonstrative, tapping his stick in the slot without an opponent anywhere near him — but Burakovsky paid his teammate no mind. Instead, once he recovered the puck along the right-half wall, pulling it away from the Rangers’ Chris Kreider, he danced into the right faceoff circle just out of reach of Marc Staal, flicked a shot from just in front of Brouwer in the slot.
“He knew I was there,” Brouwer said. “But, you know, a kid like that who gets a shot like that — when he gets an opportunity like that between the hash marks, I expect him to shoot. I have no problem with him taking that shot.”
The second goal, at a mere 24 seconds into the third period, was just as dazzling. Brouwer forced a turnover by Ryan McDonagh at the red line, then pushed the puck up to a streaking Burakovsky. A length away from McDonagh, he swooped in on Henrik Lundqvist, deking from the left to the right before tucking a nifty backhand past the goaltender.
That goal atoned for a near-miss at 18:53 of the second period, when defenseman John Carlson deftly crossed the puck to Burakovsky over a diving player — but the rookie sent it wide of the net. And, as a reflection of his all-around play on Wednesday, he dropped to one knee at 10:19 of the third period, blocking a shot from Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein.
Holtby, who had his second career shutout in Monday’s 1-0 victory of the Islanders, had little hope on Brassard’s goal. The center joined Martin St. Louis on a two-on-two rush, and when St. Louis ran out of room with Karl Alzner in front of him, he fed Brassard, with a step on Alex Ovechkin, in the slot.
But, with Hagelin awarded the penalty shot when Mike Green was whistled for hooking, Holtby had no problem foiling his opponent, coolly gloving a backhand wrister.
Burakovsky, re-inserted by coach Barry Trotz prior to Game 4 against the Islanders, had taken no more than three shots on goal in any of his seven playoff games prior to Wednesday. He took five of the Capitals’ 30 shots on goal, and perhaps even he found it hard to believe what he had just done.
After his second tally, his spontaneous celebration took him into the glass, when he twirled and fell, as if to faint, into defenseman Matt Niskanen’s waiting arms.
“The elements are there of a very talented young player who has speed and skill and awareness and a lot of courage, and he’s got a lot of confidence,” Trotz said. “I don’t know what the ceiling is for a player like that.”