Photo: Rob Carr
There was a time when we doubted he’d ever show up, but, last March, Evgeny Kuznetsov finally came to the Caps. Three KHL seasons after George McPhee winked at a TSN camera and drafted the young Russian, Kuznetsov left his hometown team, Trakor Chelyabinsk, to live in Alex Ovechkin’s house in Arlington, Va., and play North American hockey. Thursday night was his coming out party.
After going scoreless in his first four career playoff games, Kuznetsov tallied two goals and an assist in game five. It wasn’t so much that he scored or recorded a team-high three points, it was the confidence that Kuznetsov oozed. We saw it on display all the time in the KHL– from his wacky celebrations, brash interviews, and constant production of highlight-reel plays– but that swagger hasn’t come easily this season. Kuznetsov had to learn a new position, center, and he had to learn how to be successful in a new, nuanced system under veteran head coach Barry Trotz. On top of that, the 22 year old had to learn a new culture and language.
On Thursday, those struggles and insecurities evaporated in front of 18,506 at Verizon Center. It was beautiful to watch.
Look at these plays.
First, Kuznetsov showed off his impressive hand-eye coordination, knocking the puck out of mid-air for goal number one. This goal happened after he won a face-off and skated right to the crease looking for rebounds.
On his second goal, Kuznetsov scored on a breakaway, where he deked and tucked the puck on his backhand right under Jaroslav Halak’s five-hole.
Late in the third, Kuznetsov made Verizon Center crowd gasp as he spun and threw a blind pass off his forehand to Andre Burakovsky. Burakovsky fumbled the puck but had a wide-open net. This was the same, needled pass Kuznetsov made in the 2011 World Junior Championship gold medal game to Vladimir Tarasenko.
This strong move to the net was impressive.
Even Kuznetsov’s celebrations were full of swagger (and imaginary bows and arrows) too.
After the game, Barry Trotz spoke about Kuznetsov’s incredible transformation.
“He’s had a long growth this year from being an early season scratch to growing into a next level,” he said. “I think that comes from the coaching staff, I think it comes from the room, it comes from players, it comes from guys like Brooks Orpik and Alexander Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. Kuzy, he’s just growing. He gotten used to the league.”
“The first 40 games it was a little bit of a mishmash of up, down, not knowing the league quite as well, not maybe as comfortable in his role,” Trotz continued. “There’s always a glass ceiling for young players and I think he got through that and you’re seeing what he’s capable of. He’s a terrific player.”
Kuznetsov deflected praise after the game (again).
Firstp he thanked Caps fans.
“When I score I hear loud in the stadium, I feel like crazy and I want to say thanks for all who come in the game,” Kuznetsov said. “More loud than the Islanders game and hope see you next round.”
Then he thanked his teammates.
“Right now I stay here and you guys all watching me like I’m a celebrity,” he said. “But [I’m] not. Whole team celebrity today. Not one guy. That’s our mentality. We play for each other. Not one guy.”
It was at that point Kuznetsov spouted cliches like a 15-year veteran of the league.
“We need to forget this game and focus the next game,” Kuznetsov said. And then he waxed philosophical. “Everybody wants to score the goal and do this. But if you do the right things, stay in the plan and all the goals, passes and Cups come.”
“One guy never win the Cup. Only team win the Cup.”
But with Kuznetsov playing like this, boy, are the Caps a better team.
Evgeny Kuznetsov is the 4th rookie in #Caps history to score two goals in a playoff game (Marcus Johansson, Richard Zednik, Sergei Gonchar).
— CapitalsPR (@CapitalsPR) April 24, 2015
Additional reporting by Chris Gordon.
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