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Hendrix Lapierre is back with the Capitals and making a statement

Hendrix Lapierre is back with the Capitals and making a statement

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Hendrix Lapierre has grown very familiar with the drive between D.C. and Hershey, Pa. The 22-year-old center has shifted between the Capitals and the Hershey Bears, Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate, eight times this season.

But in his latest recall to the NHL, he’s making a case to stick around.

Lapierre didn’t make the Capitals’ roster out of training camp and ended up in Hershey. By Oct. 29, he was back with Washington when winger Sonny Milano was out with an illness. What began as an emergency recall turned into a nearly six-week stay in the NHL; Lapierre didn’t return to Hershey until Dec. 9. Ten days later, he was back with the Capitals after winger T.J. Oshie was placed on injured reserve. During the NHL’s Christmas break, Lapierre returned to the Bears, but he was recalled immediately afterward, and he stayed with Washington until Jan. 23.

During Lapierre’s most recent stint in Hershey, the Capitals had a need at center when Evgeny Kuznetsov entered the player assistance program Feb. 5, but Washington elected to call up center Mike Sgarbossa instead.

“Lappy has done a lot of good things, got a good taste, has played some meaningful games, has done a good job,” Capitals Coach Spencer Carbery said Feb. 6. “… I just think in this situation, letting Lappy continue to play big minutes in a large role in the American Hockey League in this portion of the season, it was the best decision for our team at this point.”

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Shifting between the NHL and the AHL, with the fluctuating ice time that entails, can be a challenge, and Lapierre wasn’t at the top of his game in his first few games with the Bears after being sent down in late January. But he found his game again in early February, racking up three goals and five assists in a five-game span before being called back up near the end of the month.

“When he’s on his game, he’s a pretty dominant player at this level,” Hershey Coach Todd Nelson said last week. “He skates really well. I think the biggest thing for him when he came back down, he had to find his consistency again, and he did, after maybe a couple games that he wasn’t that sharp in. He’s learning. He’s a young guy. It’s nice to see.”

Since his return to Washington’s lineup Feb. 26, Lapierre has made a statement.

Against the Ottawa Senators that night, Lapierre scored twice for the first multi-goal game of his NHL career. He followed with a goal at the Detroit Red Wings the next day. When an ugly 8-3 loss led Carbery to juggle his line combinations, Lapierre moved up to Washington’s top line with Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson for Friday’s crucial game against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Lapierre responded to the moment, helping the Capitals boost their playoff hopes with two assists and an 11-for-19 performance in the faceoff circle.

“I had a good night,” Lapierre said after the 5-2 win. “And now it’s just about … finding consistency in the circle and being someone that can be relied on.”

“I thought he was really good again,” Carbery added. “That’s three in a row, and even in the circumstances with the significance of the game, playing on the top line, I didn’t feel like it affected him whatsoever.”

Finding consistency is the main — and most difficult — task for any young player in the NHL, and Lapierre is no exception. He had a difficult game Sunday against the Arizona Coyotes — as did all of the Capitals in an ugly loss — and the three previous games are unquestionably a small sample size.

But there’s something different about how Lapierre’s game this time. His deft skating lets him make an impact on nearly every shift, his five points in four games represent the best stretch of his NHL career, and he has the confidence to not be overwhelmed while playing next to Ovechkin, a childhood idol.

“It’s good,” Lapierre said of his confidence level. “Honestly, it’s been really good since the start of the year. I feel like I’m growing each and every day. I’m playing better as the games go on. I’m learning new stuff. I feel pretty confident right now, and I’m happy to be a part of this group.”

Carbery is seeing a different version of Lapierre, too.

“I thought the three games before [Sunday] were three of the best games that I’ve seen him play in the National Hockey League,” Carbery said. “… [He] looks way more confident. His skating — he’s done a way better job of utilizing that each and every night. … In those three games before, there’s probably five or six instances where he jumps off the page.”

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Lapierre’s intelligence and poise with the puck have earned him additional trust from the coaching staff, and he’s starting to transition from making the mistakes common among young players to playing with a more veteran sense of awareness. The 2020 first-round pick is still just 35 games into his NHL career.

“Usually for a young player, when they come in and play NHL games, they do two or three or four things a game that you’re like, ‘Whoa,’ ” Carbery said. “It’s just an odd puck play, odd read, where when you become a veteran player and play a couple hundred games in the NHL, those just get weeded out of your game because you know they can’t happen. For those three games, there was hardly any of those situations with him.”

To be eligible to play with the Bears in the AHL playoffs — and help them win a second straight Calder Cup — Lapierre will have to be on Hershey’s roster Friday, when the NHL trade deadline passes. But given the way he has played over the past week, the odds of that being a move made only on paper — and Lapierre finishing the NHL season with Washington before joining Hershey for another playoff run — are going up.

“I had a tough game last game, but before that, I felt really, really good,” Lapierre said. “I know those tough nights will happen. In those situations, I just have to try to find, if it’s not going well offensively, what can I do defensively? Can I win my faceoffs? Can I forecheck hard? … I think that’s part of consistency, too. I feel good about my game. I think it’s just going to improve.”

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