Washington will go as far as Kuznetsov takes them

Cen­ter was at his best last week, re­viv­ing hope champs can re­gain form

Baltimore Sun - - NBA - By Is­abelle Khurshudyan

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.

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