- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2017

On June 25, 2010, everything seemed to be perfectly in place for Brett Connolly.

The then-18-year-old had been selected with the sixth-overall pick by the Tampa Bay Lightning after an eye-popping junior career with the Prince George Cougars in the Western Hockey League.

Despite playing in just 16 games in the 2009-10 season due to injury, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was convinced of the young player’s potential. In 85 career WHL games, Connolly had 40 goals and 39 assists.

After one more junior year with Prince George, a year where he would play as the team captain and finish with 79 points in 53 games, Connolly jumped to the Lightning after a strong training camp.

“I went into Tampa as a 19-year-old and had a training camp where they couldn’t send me down,” Connolly said. “I think I scored every game. They kept me. Was it good for me? I don’t know, I’m not sure.”

Connolly’s early success may have backfired, though. Instead of transitioning into professional hockey by way of the American Hockey League like many players, Connolly played in almost every game of his 2011-12 NHL season — recording just four goals and 15 total points.

Five years, several up-and-down seasons and a couple of teams later, the former top 10 pick found himself a free agent in the offseason, facing questions about an uncertain future after playing out a one-year contract with the Boston Bruins.

“There’s a lot of good players,” Connolly said of the free agency pool. “They’re picking guys from all over the world. It’s definitely tough, but you have to find your niche on a team.”

Connolly, who signed a one-year-deal with Washington last summer, seems to have found that niche with the Capitals.

After years of failing to live up to expectations, Connolly this season is exceeding them.

With 11 goals and five assists in 40 games, Connolly is just one goal away from tying his career high and 10 points shy from setting a new career benchmark there, too.

Part of the reason: A sense of comfort with his role. Connolly has essentially played on the third line with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky for the vast majority of the season. And that line has been humming. Over the last 11 games, those three have combined for 16 goals. Connolly himself has nine points in his last 11 games.

It’s the kind of hot streak Connolly’s rarely seen — but playing alongside Eller and Burakovsky is paying off.

“Honestly, I went through a few stretches in the year where I was getting chances, it just hit the post, hit the crossbar, goalies were making saves and all that,” Connolly said. “I played consistently there, maybe snake-bitten here or there. I said this probably a month ago, I don’t think I’ve been this confident within a line in my whole career. We’ve been so good, and we’ve had so much fun. It’s fun to be a part of. Those two guys have been a big part of it. We’re looking to get better every day and hopefully we can keep it up, I think we will. We’re going to get chances every night, and we’re getting chances every game for the last month, creating offense. Lars has been really good defensively. We’re just more confident with each other. We’ve kind of found some chemistry and that’s what we need right now.”

During his time in Boston, Connolly’s most frequent linemates were Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron, who play as Boston’s top line. That meant Connolly saw a lot of time against the NHL’s top players. Now, he’s regularly iced against opponents’ bottom-six.

“I think last year, when I was playing with those guys, we were playing against the team’s top lines every night,” Connolly said. “Every team, that top line usually has two, three really good players. This year, I’ve kind of gotten a chance to get away from that matchup a little bit, play a little down the lineup a little bit, and I play against third and fourth lines a lot. It’s been helpful. It’s good to not have to play that matchup some times. We’ve got so many good players here, I think anybody can play against anybody on this team.”

Connolly is providing something the Capitals lacked last season: A consistent scoring threat within the bottom-six group. That, and playing on a team setting the pace in the league has Connolly’s confidence at an all-time high.

“Right now, everybody knows we have a good chance, it’s just a matter of putting it together and really playing for each other,” Connolly said. “We can definitely do it, there’s no question. We got to keep working and get a couple breaks in second half and the playoffs, and we’ll see what happens. It could be a lot of fun.”

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