Kuznetsov ev­ery bit as hot as Caps

23-year-old cen­ter has been in­te­gral to team’s 6-1 start

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY IS­ABELLE KHURSHUDYAN

ed­mon­ton — It took two tow­els to wipe the shav­ing cream off his face, and still white clouds re­mained on his cheeks and in the cor­ners of his eyes. Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t even raise his arms in cel­e­bra­tion when he scored his third goal against Ed­mon­ton on Fri­day night, keep­ing his fist­pump­ing to him­self, but the Wash­ing­ton Cap­i­tals didn’t let him off so eas­ily.

Alex Ovechkin re­trieved Kuznetsov’s keep­sake puck, and just to en­sure he was ad­e­quately sin­gled out for his ac­com­plish­ment, Ovechkin smoth­ered Kuznetsov’s face with a shav­ing cream-filled towel while the lat­ter was in the mid­dle of a postgame in­ter­view.

But when it was Kuznetsov’s turn to talk and he was asked about the emo­tions of scor­ing that third goal — a wrist shot from the right face­off cir­cle on a power play for his first NHL hat trick — he de­flected the at­ten­tion again.

“I feel we got two points,” Kuznetsov said af­ter the 7-4 win.

“That’s all I need.”

Kuznetsov’s 11 points are at the cen­ter of Wash­ing­ton’s 6-1-0 start. His de­vel­op­ment has given the Cap­i­tals a one-two punch at cen­ter with Nick­las Back­strom that is a matchup night­mare for op­po­nents, many of whom don’t have two re­li­able de­fen­sive pair­ings to con­tain both of their lines.

He’s ben­e­fited from cen­ter­ing the top line, but Kuznetsov’s play would likely daz­zle even with­out his ta­lented team­mates. His crisp as­sists be­long in hockey trick shot videos in­stead of on game tape. But ask Kuznetsov to talk about him­self, and he squirms. His team­mates are happy to say what he won’t.

“He’s kind of shy, I would say, for the me­dia,” Back­strom said. “But in­side, I know he feels pretty good, so that’s all that mat­ters.”

The Cap­i­tals knew they had a ta­lented player, but Kuznetsov’s first full NHL sea­son was un­even as he ad­justed to play­ing cen­ter and to an un­fa­mil­iar league. He got more com­fort­able down the stretch, record­ing 37 points by the sea­son’s end and adding seven more dur­ing the play­offs.

His break­through in the post­sea­son left no doubt that the Cap­i­tals had found their sec­ond­line cen­ter. But with Back­strom miss­ing the first three games this sea­son, Kuznetsov, 23, started the sea­son on the first line. His play has jus­ti­fied keep­ing him there even af­ter Back­strom’s re­turn.

Through seven games, Kuznetsov is sec­ond in the league in points to Bos­ton’s David Kre­jci. His high­light-reel plays are passed around on so­cial me­dia, but Coach Barry Trotz ap­pre­ci­ates the sub­tle im­prove­ments. Trotz pointed out ear­lier this week that Kuznetsov was “ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble” at face­offs in the of­fen­sive zone last year (38.9 per­cent), but he’s steadily im­proved to 46 per­cent this sea­son.

On Wash­ing­ton’s three-game western Canada trip, Trotz got the req­ui­site ques­tions from Cana­dian re­porters about Ovechkin at ev­ery stop and he told the same sto­ries with the same sin­cer­ity. But he also was asked re­peat­edly about Kuznetsov.

“It’s not even the same per­son,” Trotz said in Van­cou­ver. “We al­ways knew he had the skill, but his pro game — his North Amer­i­can game — has re­ally come along. He’s not afraid of the big mo­ments. He’s not afraid of the top play­ers in the league. He wants to be one of the best guys in the game, and I think he can be.”

For some­one un­com­fort­able with at­ten­tion, Kuznetsov has started to com­mand it. In the Cap­i­tals’ 6-2 win at Calgary on Tues­day, Kuznetsov skated be­hind the net, then dragged the puck across his body be­fore a back­hand pass to An­dre Bu­rakovsky, who scored.

“It was a lucky play,” Kuznetsov said af­ter the game. “Al­ways lucky.”

That would’ve been more be­liev­able if Kuznetsov hadn’t ex­e­cuted the same pass to T.J. Oshie against the Car­olina Hur­ri­canes. Oshie fired, but goal­tender Cam Ward made an im­pres­sive glove save.

“Some of the things he does on the ice, I won­der how some­one does those things,” de­fense­man Nate Sch­midt said in Van­cou­ver. “He makes ex­tra­or­di­nary plays look or­di­nary, the things that he does and the passes that he makes. He’s such a ta­lented player, and he’s only go­ing to get bet­ter. And that’s the scary part about him.”

The pass to Bu­rakovsky was brought up, and Sch­midt just shook his head in won­der­ment. Was it lucky? Sch­midt laughed and turned to de­fense­man Dmitry Orlov, a close friend of Kuznetsov’s.

“I don’t know. Snarls, what do you think?” Sch­midt said. “Kuzy’s back­hand pass lucky?”

Orlov smiled and rolled his eyes. “No.”

Bu­rakovsky agreed, say­ing ev­ery time Kuznetsov takes the puck be­hind the net, his team­mates know to fol­low be­hind and an­tic­i­pate it. Trotz re­ferred to it as an “against the grain” pass, de­scrib­ing the de­gree of dif­fi­culty as high be­cause he saucer passes the puck when he’s al­ready three­quar­ters of the way across the back of the net.

“The thing is sell­ing it,” Trotz said. “With the resources of video across the league and NHL Net­work, YouTube and all that, goalies are catch­ing onto it a lit­tle bit. He’s got a cou­ple other tricks up his sleeve. . . . That’s just some of the things that Kuzy can do.”

Two hours later, Kuznetsov got his hat trick. That’s ap­par­ently an­other of the things Kuzy can do.

NICK WASS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“Some of the things he does . . . I won­der how some­one does [them],” Cap­i­tals team­mate Nate Sch­midt said of Evgeny Kuznetsov, above.

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