Kuznetsov putting on daz­zling dis­play

Baltimore Sun - - WEATHER - By Is­abelle Khurshudyan is­abelle.khurshudyan @wash­post.com twit­ter.com/ikhur­shudyan

WASHINGTON — The puck on Evgeny Kuznetsov’s stick and the way the two move in concert elic­its a cer­tain awe from those who watch him most. On a Cap­i­tals team that has Alex Ovechkin’s shot, Nick­las Back­strom’s pass­ing and Braden Holtby’s saves, it’s Kuznetsov who man­ages to be the most eye-catch­ing.

“It looks like he’s danc­ing out there,” Back­strom said.

“You come watch a game, there are cer­tain play­ers that get peo­ple out of their seats, and it’s a joy to watch,” for­ward T.J. Oshie said. “I don’t even like watch­ing hockey, so when I see Kuzy go­ing, it’s one of the only times I en­joy.”

“It ’s ef­fort­less. It ’s smooth. It looks like he’s not even try­ing,” Cap­i­tals gen­eral man­ager Brian MacLel­lan said. “He’ll come to a com­plete stop and re­v­erse out of it. it’s fun to watch some­body do that stuff. It’s gotta be un­be­liev­able to be able to play that way, you know? That’s what I al­ways think about. How fun would that be if I could do that?”

Kuznetsov is cer­tainly en­joy­ing him­self, and he’s not in­ter­ested in much else. His four-point clinic in the Cap­i­tals’ 5-2 win over the Ve­gas Golden Knights on Wed­nes­day has him at seven points through the first four games, ap­par­ently pick­ing up where he left off in the play­offs, when he was the league’s lead­ing scorer with 12 goals and 20 as­sists en route to Washington’s fran­chise-first Stan­ley Cup.

The grand stage and Kuznetsov’s daz­zling play on it el­e­vated his rep­u­ta­tion in the NHL, but his team­mates still don’t think many have grasped ex­actly how good he is. Tonight’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when Kuznetsov will share the ice with two of the league’s best cen­ters in Aus­ton Matthews and John Tavares, is an­other op­por­tu­nity for Washington’s gre­gar­i­ous 26-year-old Rus­sian to show he be­longs in that elite ech­e­lon.

“I think he’s up there with the top five play­ers in the league, and I don’t know, he just doesn’t get the recog­ni­tion for some rea­son,” Oshie said.

Kuznetsov smiled as he was re­layed that com­ment and then asked whether win­ning the Hart Tro­phy, the NHL’s MVP award, is a goal.

“I don’t give a [ex­ple­tive] about that,” Kuznetsov said. “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 (days) in a year, but I’m not ready for that. I want to have fun and I want to make those risky plays when some­times you don’t have a play and you guys don’t un­der­stand ev­ery time those plays. It’s not easy to make. But to be MVP in this league, you have to play even bet­ter. You have to go next level. It’s not easy. More im­por­tant, you have to stay fo­cused 365, but that’s not my style.”

It’s the sort of coun­ter­in­tu­itive, con­trar­ian state­ment team­mates have come to ex­pect from Kuznetsov. Af­ter the Cap­i­tals lost to the Pen­guins in the sec­ond round two years ago, play­ers had sullen ex­pres­sions as they con­ducted their exit in­ter­views with re­porters two days later. When it was Kuznetsov’s turn, he asked me­dia, “Why all of you act like some­one died?” He kicks up a leg and flaps his arms like a bird af­ter some goals, a cel­e­bra­tion that ruf­fles op­po­nents’ feath­ers but is a fa­vorite of his young daugh­ter.

“I was watch­ing the movie a few days ago about the Brazil­ian soc­cer play­ers,” Kuznetsov said. “For them, fut­bol, the soc­cer game, that’s the big­gest day in their year. They have fun, they en­joy, they dance and they’re smil­ing ev­ery time. That’s what I’m try­ing to do, too. I try to have fun and I try to en­joy ev­ery sec­ond on the ice. You never know when you’re gonna be re­tired, right?”

But along with that, de­spite Kuznetsov’s protes­ta­tions, team­mates have seen the com­pet­i­tive side of him. “There are some peo­ple who are tal­ented and just want to get by, but Kuzy is tal­ented and he wants to be the best,” said Carolina Hurricanes cap­tain Justin Wil­liams, who was Kuznetsov’s line­mate for two years in Washington. Fit­tingly, head- to- head matchups against other top cen­ters bring out the best in him, per­haps be­cause he feels he has some­thing to prove.

“He wants that re­spon­si­bil­ity, and he’s al­ways chal­leng­ing him­self to try some­thing new,” Wil­liams said. “That’s the brain that he has — ‘I want to be the best player, I don’t want to just be good.’ And that bodes well for Washington be­cause he’s a once-in-a-while tal­ent.”

TSN an­a­lyst Ray Fer­raro, who played 18 sea­sons in the NHL, said Kuznetsov is as un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated an of­fen­sive player as there is in the league. Washington coaches and man­age­ment think the next step for him is to be more con­sis­tently dom­i­nant, as he was against Ve­gas on Wed­nes­day night. They’ve given him penal­tykilling du­ties this sea­son as a way to force him to raise his two-way play and im­prove on face­offs. The Cap­i­tals pre­fer push­ing him through the sit­u­a­tions they put him in rather than some con­ver­sa­tion about what they ex­pect.

“I think he’s go­ing to rise to the oc­ca­sion ev­ery time,” MacLel­lan said.

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