- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2017

When forward Chandler Stephenson moved onto the Capitals’ third line nearly 10 days ago, he quickly developed a chemistry with Lars Eller and Tom Wilson.

Eller and Wilson have been staples for the Capitals. Stephenson? The 23-year-old has floated back and forth from Hershey, Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate, since the 2015-16 season.

The chemistry is unexpected, to say the least. Stephenson failed to make the Capitals’ opening night roster and was placed on waivers, only for him to clear them. He began the season in Hershey.

But Stephenson leads the Capitals with a +7 plus/minus differential, meaning Washington has scored seven more goals than their opponents when Stephenson is on the ice.

“Maybe you don’t notice him right off the bat, but when you play with him, you do notice him,” Wilson said. “You notice the kind of plays that he’s making and how he’s making his linemates better.”

Injuries have forced Stephenson into his new role after the forward was recalled from Hershey on Oct. 24. The Capitals are without forwards Tyler Graovac (upper body), Andre Burakovsky (fractured thumb) and Brett Connolly (concussion). Stephenson was initially called up to replace Burakovsky on the roster, but Connolly’s concussion against Vancouver on Oct. 26 placed him on the third line in Edmonton two days later.

In his previous stints with the Capitals, Stephenson failed to record a point. He played in nine games in 2015 and appeared in only four last season.

This year, he already has four points (one goal and three assists) in five games.

Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Stephenson is playing with an urgency after not making the initial roster, and not being claimed. Stephenson, Trotz said, is creating an impact when he plays.

“He’s using his tremendous speed, he’s making more plays,” Trotz said. “He’s got all the details down. He’s got some urgency in his game. In the past and maybe in training camp, I didn’t think Chandler had that much urgency.”

Stephenson said he didn’t have any expectations to make the opening roster, but the spots were there. Instead, he was beat out on the fourth line by Graovac, Devante Smith-Pelly and Nathan Walker. He admitted being sent back to Hershey was frustrating, at times, but tried to not let it affect him.

Rather, Stephenson focused on improving his game. Wilson praised Stephenson for his hockey IQ, singling out his ability to follow the puck and be in control. Stephenson, originally a center, has even adjusted playing on the wing.

For his part, Stephenson worked to be better at using his speed — skating to the right spots and constantly be moving his feet.

“We’ve just been having fun and rolling with it,” Stephenson said. “[I’m] just playing with confidence right now and that’s the biggest thing you can play with.”

Stephenson’s sample size is admittedly small, and the players know it. Wilson stressed the need for his line to continue its production. They’ve been successful of late, with Wilson scoring two goals Saturday in Boston and Eller scoring two goals Thursday against the Islanders.

Wilson, though, said Stephenson complements his game and Eller’s by taking advantage of their strengths. Wilson relies on his size and physicality, while Eller excels in puck possession.

“When he gets the puck, he’s able to slow it down,” Wilson said of Stephenson. “We’ll get open and he’ll put it on our tape.”

It’s unclear how much longer Stephenson will remain on the roster and on the third line. Burakovsky had surgery and was announced out 6-8 weeks, so chances are he’ll be with the Capitals through at least that time frame.

But Connolly increased his workload Monday, skating before practice. Graovac, meanwhile, skated with the team during morning skate. Trotz said they were getting closer to a return, though added neither had a timetable. The Capitals coach likes to often tinker his lines, too.

Wilson is glad the decisions aren’t up to him.

“You want the coach to have tough choices to make,” Wilson said. “That means you’re putting your best foot forward. I think [Stephenson‘s] done a great job to show that he belongs here.”


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