ARLINGTON, Va. — Jakub Vrana turned 22 in February and is still considered an NHL rookie. He is just over a year removed from sitting as a healthy scratch in the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup Playoffs.
Yet here is, playing significant minutes and making key contributions in the Stanley Cup Final, while skating primarily on a line with Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie. It’s pretty good work if you can find it.
“It’s a dream come true to be in this situation,” Vrana said Friday morning as the Capitals prepared to host the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 3 Saturday (8 p.m.; WFED 1500AM).
“Obviously for my confidence, it’s big. I love it. I love to go out there and to enjoy every second with these guys on a line.”
Although Vrana is looking to snap a 10-game goalless drought — his last tally was the game-winning goal in Washington’s Game 5 comeback over Pittsburgh — the Capitals’ first-round pick in the 2014 NHL Draft has been an easy watch against Vegas.
Vrana is arguably the Capitals fastest skater, and the wheels were noticeable at T-Mobile Arena. In Games 1 and 2, Vrana worked smoothly in transition and was aggressive on the forecheck and around the net. He had five shots on goal in the first two games, assisted on Nicklas Backstrom’s goal in Game 1, and began the play that led to John Carlson’s Game 1 tally with strong work below the goal line.
“Obviously my strength with my game is skating,” said Vrana, who has two goals and seven points and a plus-6 rating in 20 games this spring.
“When the game is fast like that, it’s kind of good for me to settle it in and use my legs. That’s what I’ve been doing and it’s just about doing it every game, staying consistent and making sure you’re useful every game.”
According to Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post, Vrana is producing a team-high 13.3 scoring chances per 60 minutes during the postseason.
“Maybe he doesn’t have the (goals or points) to show for it, but he’s been great in his role,” said Lars Eller.
“He’s playing to his strength, using his speed. He’s creating a lot of opportunities. He looks like he’s getting good chances every game, so it’s just a matter of time before one of those is going to go in; or maybe two. I’m really impressed with how he’s handled himself in a place where he hasn’t been before.”
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Vrana’s impact in the Stanley Cup Final comes as the final chapter in an up-and-down rookie campaign.
During the regular season, Vrana had 13 goals and 27 points in 73 games but he also battled through a personal 25-game scoreless drought and had multiple stints as a healthy scratch.
When the Capitals opened the postseason against Columbus, Vrana was limited to 48 minutes and 50 seconds across the five games he played — a number which is actually inflated thanks to the 22:00 he skated in the Capitals’ double overtime Game 3 win. Vrana also sat as a healthy scratch in Game 2 in the first round.
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“Going into the playoffs,” head coach Barry Trotz recalled before Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, “I’ll be quite honest on this, (Vrana) was one of the guys I was probably little bit more worried about in terms of his game and the big stage and all that. He had a little setback early in the Columbus series, where that first game he had the saucer eyes and everything was happening real quick for him.”
An Andre Burakovsky injury in Game 2 of Washington’s first-round series against Columbus opened the door for Vrana’s return and although his minutes were limited against the Blue Jackets, his workload shot up against Pittsburgh.
With the Capitals trailing the Penguins 3-2 heading into the third period in Game 5, Vrana was elevated to the No. 1 line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. He responded by assisting on the game-tying goal and scoring the game winner in an eventual 6-3 Capitals win that secured a 3-2 series lead.
“Just keeping my confidence at a high level,” Vrana said of the biggest difference as he has gained postseason experience. “Practice hard, practice extra and focus on things I can control. Whatever chance I got, I just want to go out there and have some fun and make sure I do things right and help the team.”
While the grind of a season now into its ninth month may catch up to some veterans in early June, Vrana has provided plenty of energy and fresh legs for the Capitals in the championship round.
“He just settled in and he’s been really, really good,” Trotz said. “We’re now 20 game into the postseason and he’s played all but one. So he’s a veteran at it. I thought in a really big stage when there was a lot of stuff going on [in Vegas], I thought he settled in really well and he was dangerous.”
Oshie was also impressed with how well Vrana played in Game 2, lauding him for being double shifted with the Capitals down to just 11 forwards due to Evgeny Kuznetsov’s first-period injury.
“That tells you, being a young guy double shifted when the bench is short in the finals in Game 2, “ Oshie said, “that shows you how well he was playing.”
Vrana is hoping to maintain that strong play as the Capitals return home for Game 3 Saturday.
“It’s a big stage, it’s the Stanley Cup Final, I know that, I know it’s a responsibility,” he said. “But it’s still hockey. So, I want to go out there and have some fun and make sure I don’t let down any fans or any of our teammates and just try to go and play 100 percent.”