The Washington Capitals’ lone unrestricted free agent signing of the 2016 offseason was Brett Connolly, who last played for the Boston Bruins.
Connolly was scratched for the first two games of the season, but the 24-year-old forward will make his Capitals debut against the Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s exciting,” Connolly said. “You know, you never want to sit, but, at the same time, there’s different scenarios that play. You know, we have the luxury here of having a lot of guys who get to play. For me, I’m excited to get back. It’s been a little while now. I’m excited to get a chance tonight, make an impact and help the team.”
Connolly will line up on the Capitals’ third line, replacing rookie Zach Sanford, joining Lars Eller and Justin Williams.
Head coach Barry Trotz believes Connolly, who primarily played on the top line in Boston with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, can fit in nicely on that third line.
“I think it’ll be an opportunity for him to use his skill set playing with a couple of good veterans in Eller and Williams,” Trotz said. “I think [Connolly] had a really good camp. He just didn’t find maybe enough production in the games, but I thought his work ethic and his diligence on the game is pretty good. I think his skill set will fit nicely in there.”
Connolly finished last season with nine goals and 16 assists. Before entering the NHL, Connolly was known as a bona fide goal scorer, scoring 46 goals in 59 games in his final year of junior level hockey. Connolly hopes that he can bring that scoring touch back this season with Washington, and believes he can if the puck bounces his way.
“You know, when I first came into the league, that was kind of the part of my game where I needed to get better,” Connolly said. “You know, that’s a part of the game where I worked very hard within the last few years and I feel that I don’t have to worry about that side of the game anymore. It’s a matter of getting a couple of breaks and trying to gain that confidence that I can score on a consistent basis in this league. I believe I can do that. It’s just a matter of putting it together.”
Connolly won’t be the only Capital to make their season debut. Goaltender Philipp Grubauer will get the start tonight, allowing Braden Holtby to take the game off.
Grubauer played in three Olympic qualifying games this summer for Germany, recording a .970 save percentage and a 0.67 goals against average. And while he was on the roster for Team Europe in the World Cup of Hockey, Grubauer didn’t play.
It has been quite some time since Grubauer last played a meaningful hockey game.
“I just felt the timing was right,” Trotz said. “We’ll get Holts a few games here and then Gruby will have one rather than waiting until the end of the month. I know I could go with Holts with the games spread out a little bit, but I don’t think that’s fair to Gruby. We’re going to need him down the stretch.”
The Capitals play a confident Avalanche team that won their first two games of the season against two consensus top NHL teams in the Dallas Stars and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Led offensively by Nathan McKinnon (one goal, three assists), Joe Colborne (three goals) and Gabriel Landeskog (two goals, one assist), the Avalanche play high-temp, high-event hockey, relying on their speed among their forward group.
“Probably the No. 1 thing is they sort of stay with it,” Trotz said. “I mean, they’ve been down 2-0 in the first two games they’ve played and they’ve come back and won both of those games. I think they believe that they’re going to score goals, [but] they’ve given up a fair amount as well.”
Prior to the game, the Capitals will be honoring Braden Holtby for his record-setting season last year. Holtby, who won the 2015-16 Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goaltender, won 48 games last year, tying the single-season mark set by New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur, despite playing 12 fewer games than the retired goaltender. Against the Islanders, Holtby recorded his 150th career win.