Nothing But KuznetsovPosted on March 15, 2014 by Keith Leonard
The last time Evgeny Kuznetsov was on North American soil, he was accepting a Silver Medal in the 2012 IIHF World Junior Championship game to a chorus of Canadian hockey fans cheering his defeat in the gold medal game against rival Sweden. The pain at not winning a second consecutive WJC gold medal was visible in his expression. On Friday night, he returned some of that pain back to Canada.
In his third NHL game after joining the Capitals from Traktor Chelyabinsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, the prized prospect of the Washington Capitals turned in a breakout performance, gathering the first of likely many points in his NHL career. Kuznetsov's efforts, particularly late in the game, helped stave off a furious effort by the Vancouver Canucks and allowed the Capitals to collect two desperately needed standings points. With less than ten minutes of even-strength ice time and one minute on the power-play, the 21-year-old Chelyabinsk native recorded the first three assists of his career, including one on the man-advantage.
With the game tied 1-1 mid-way through the second period, Kuznetsov was given a brief shift on the power-play. Manning the half-wall on the second unit, much the way Nicklas Backstrom does on the first, Kuznetsov found an open passing lane and fed the puck to John Carlson, who immediately found an open Alex Ovechkin for a one-time blast from the top of the circle past Canucks goaltender Eddie Lack to break the tie.
Minutes later, with 7:25 left in the second , Kuznetsov patiently held onto the puck and, with tremendous precision, targeted fellow rookie Tom Wilson with an incredible slap pass, which Wilson fired over the glove of Lack to give the Caps a 3-1 lead late in the second.
Kuznetsov's final contribution to the score sheet may have lacked the flash of his setup on WIlson's goal, but the patience and poise displayed was astounding. With Canucks defenseman Alexander Edler shadowing him behind the net, Kuznetsov patiently held onto the puck, shielding it long enough for Backstrom to get open next to the near-side post. Kuznetsov fired a crisp pass to Backstrom, who used the net as a screen to find Mike Green for a slick wrist shot that rocketed past Lack for the game winning goal.
With each successive point, the Verizon Center faithful rewarded the young Russian with increasingly thunderous applause. For his efforts, Kuznetsov finished as the "Player of the Game" as the Capitals secured a much-needed victory on home ice.
After the game, Kuznetsov appeared before the media. Despite his basic grasp of the English language, his enthusiasm was palpable. "I hope we [would] win today. We need [to win] a couple straight games to go up [in the standings]. I hope we win today. It's [a] first for me." When asked how he likes playing with his line-mates, Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson, he remarked: "Good guys. We speak before the game, before the practice. [They are] good younger guys. I hope to play with all [the] guys." After a three assist night in just his third NHL game, it shouldn't be too long before Kuznetsov gets his chance to play his way up the lineup. The NHL should consider itself on notice.