Washington will go as far as Kuznetsov takes them
Center was at his best last week, reviving hope champs can regain form
WASHINGTON – The bird was back last week, flapping his wings in his trademark celebration after a game-winning breakaway in overtime, swearing into a live microphone minutes later during a postgame interview and grinning all the while. It was center Evgeny Kuznetsov at his bewildering best, and it was a welcome sight for the Washington Capitals.
As the team has earned seven out of a possible 10 points so far on this six-game homestand, Kuznetsov has been the Capitals’ best player, reinforcing the notion that as he goes so do they. Washington has started to steadily build its game back up after finishing January with a seven-game losing streak, and it’s no coincidence that it’s been with Kuznetsov scoring four goals — two were game-winners, including the overtime breakaway Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche that prompted Kuznetsov’s birdlike postscript — with four assists over the past five games.
And it’s these dazzling stretches that can make Kuznetsov so confounding for the organization. He was the Capitals’ leading scorer in their run to the Stanley Cup last postseason, and while it may be asking too much for him to maintain that level of play for an entire regular season, he wasn’t all that close to his full potential for the two months before Washington’s recent bye week.
Now that he has gotten back to the version of himself that can change the game anytime the puck is on his stick, the Capitals want more consistentcy.
“Howhard he wants to compete out there dictates [his play],” general manager Brian MacLellan said last month. “He could be one of the best players in the league, if he chose to be.”
Asked again Monday about Kuznetsov’s play, MacLellan was just as blunt.
“I think for our organization, for our team to do well, we need him at the top of his game,” MacLellan said. “Depending on how you look at it, it was one or two — [captain Alex Ovechkin] and him for MVP last year in the playoffs. That’s why we did well, because Kuznetsov played well. I think if he’s not going to play at that level, we’re not going to do as well. He’s that important to our team.”
In Washington’s first game out of the bye week Feb. 1 against Calgary, Kuznetsov scored the game-winning goal on a power play in the final minute of the game. Two days later, he took a needless slashing minor in the neutral zone seven seconds after the Capitals had just successfully gotten through a penalty kill, prompting coach Todd Reirden to bench him for the rest of the first period at five-onfive. Kuznetsov’s response? “That [expletive] happens, right?” he said.
“Sometimes I feel like that’s a bad call, but then when you look it’s actually not a bad call and you get too emotional during the game and that’s how those mistakes happen when you take penalties, when you get too overemotional,” he continued. “Or sometimes you’re too bored in the
Radio: game and then you’re trying to get back into the game and you over-slash somebody, so that’s not good.”
Those kinds of comments are as charming as they are chafing for Washington. Of the 100 centers who have taken the most faceoffs in the NHL this season entering Sunday, Kuznetsov’s 38.8 percent success rate ranks last, a big reason the Capitals are the league’s worst team on draws. He largely shrugged that off, too. “I always believe if we lost the faceoff, we get puck back in two seconds,” he said.
Reconciling those quirks is part of the deal with Kuznetsov — Kuzy being Kuzy. He is at his best when he is that fun-loving, lighthearted character, but that can often create the impression that he is not always taking things seriously or trying his hardest, as MacLellan alluded. After he started the season with seven points in the first three games, Kuznetsov was asked if winning the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s MVP award, was a goal.
“I don’t give a [expletive] about that,” he said in October. “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”
Asked about that edict Sunday, Kuznetsov explained that, in his opinion, being the best player in the league would require him to score so much that he would feel “selfish.”
Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, shooting Thursday night against the Avalanche, has four goals and four assists in the past five games.