Fly­ing high

Kuznetsov is look­ing more like him­self, which is good news for a Cap­i­tals team that wins more when he is fully in­vested

The Washington Post - - SPORTS - BY ISABELLE KHURSHUDYAN

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.

The team has earned seven of a pos­si­ble 10 points so far on this six-game home­s­tand, and 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 has hap­pened with Kuznetsov notch­ing four goals — two were game-win­ners, in­clud­ing the over­time break­away Thurs­day against the Colorado Avalanche that prompted Kuznetsov’s bird­like post­script — and 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 any time the puck is on his stick, the Cap­i­tals want to see him main­tain that more con­sis­tently.

“How hard 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 last week 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 — [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. 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 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 the Cap­i­tals. 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 — it’s just Kuzy be­ing Kuzy. He is at his best when he is that fun-lov­ing, light­hearted char­ac­ter, but that can 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 whether 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.”

“Of course every player want to be best player, but if you want to be like that, the way I un­der­stand, you have to get like 50 goals at least, right?” he said. “You can’t win that with 30 goals. That would be stupid. You’re not the best. To be best, you’ve got to score 50, right? And to score 50, you ei­ther have to have a shot like Ovi, so you don’t have to shoot 10 times a game — he can shoot three times and two of them can be in — and well, I don’t have a shot like that. . . .

“That’s not the way I want to play, and I don’t think the guys, my team­mates, would like to play with a player like that.”

Ed­mon­ton’s Connor McDavid won the Hart Tro­phy two sea­sons ago with 30 goals, but he also had 70 as­sists, giv­ing him the only 100-point cam­paign in the NHL that sea­son. New Jer­sey winger Tay­lor Hall won with 39 goals and 54 as­sists last sea­son, and the most re­cent Hart Tro­phy win­ner who scored 50 goals was Pitts­burgh’s Ev­geni Malkin in 2011-12.

Be­fore this month, Kuznetsov had scored just three goals at even strength — the other six came when Wash­ing­ton had a power play and all in the first 12 games of the sea­son — and though he has two even-strength goals in the past five games, he re­jected the no­tion that he is play­ing any dif­fer­ently.

“I think I play the same way like I did,” he said. “Some­times when you have pretty good looks and you did not score, most [peo­ple], they’re not watch­ing the games, right? They look at the stats — how many goals, how many as­sists you had — and that’s why I don’t like in this league so many peo­ple fo­cus­ing on that. But some­times you can do some other things and then end up, you know, you’re go­ing to have a cou­ple as­sists and now ev­ery­one loves you back. That’s kind of bulls---, I think.”

There’s a lot to love about Kuznetsov when he is play­ing like this, and the more of­ten the Cap­i­tals see that glee­ful bird flap­ping his wings, the bet­ter their chances of re­peat­ing as cham­pi­ons.

“He’s such a unique player that when he’s re­ally go­ing, when he’s on, it changes the whole game,” de­fense­man Matt Niska­nen said. “It seems like he can make some­thing out of noth­ing, make some­thing hap­pen af­ter he gets the puck. When he’s not play­ing his best, it’s not that he’s not try­ing or any­thing, but the last cou­ple games some­thing hap­pened where all of a sud­den he’s feel­ing it. And it’s no­tice­able every shift. . . .

“He’s so tal­ented that when he’s hav­ing just an okay game for him, he can still have a goal and an as­sist and be a pretty dang good player. But what he’s ca­pa­ble of — and we’ve all seen it — he’s been closer to that the last cou­ple of games.”

NICK WASS/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Cap­i­tals cen­ter Evgeny Kuznetsov has scored four goals, in­clud­ing two win­ners, in his past five games.

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