By Chris Gordon
Photo credit: Alex Brandon
The Washington Capitals dominated play in game seven against the New York Islanders through two periods. They were constantly parked in the Isles zone, putting pucks on goaltender Jaroslav Halak with ease. The Islanders could barely muster a whimper, with just six shots on goal as the middle frame wound down. Somehow, though, Washington hadn’t found a way to convert: missed deflections, timely saves, and bad bounces led to a scoreboard that reflected little about what happening on the ice.
Then, with 1:25 left in the second period, Joel Ward broke through, poking Brooks Orpik‘s shot through the legs of Halak. Verizon Center erupted into a shining display of pure human joy. But it was still full of Washington Capitals fans, ready to have their hearts ripped out with final game, final period collapse. And just three minutes and 13 seconds into the closing frame, Frans Nielsen did just that with an innocent-looking wrist shot from the slot that trickled through Braden Holtby’s pads. With that, the game was tied. Though the Caps had dominated play, the game looked like it would end with another bitter, bruising fight, with one bad bounce deciding each team’s fate.
But instead, the game-winner would buck the thuggery the series had shown. With around seven minutes left in the zero-sum game, Evgeny Kuznetsov picked up Jason Chimera‘s pass at the far wall, before cutting right through the heart of the New York zone. The play was magisterial, with Kuznetsov floated past Islanders defenders. Instead of firing the puck off at his first look at the net, Kuznetsov held on to it until he got to the near circle. That’s when Halak went down. Kuznetsov saw an opening.
“I just put puck in the net,” he told reporters after the game.
After that rubber hit twine, Kuznetsov ripped a windmill celebration that seemed to stretch for miles. His teammates mobbed him at the blue line. A little over a year ago, Kuznetsov had never played professionally in North America. Now he was a hero on one of hockey’s biggest stages.
“I’m so excited when I score and when we win the game,” Kuznetsov said. “Our building is crazy and people loud. You feel the power, energy. I want to say thanks for everybody.”
“It was unbelievable,” he went on. “If you never played the hockey you never feel this.”
Kuznetsov’s road to the NHL has been long. At 22, he is old for a rookie. Drafted in 2010 by the Washington Capitals in the first round, Kuznetsov choose to stay in Russia and play for his hometown team in Chelyabinsk instead of bolting to North America. If he left, Kuznetsov was told, there would be no spot on the Russian Olympic team for him. Ultimately, injuries derailed his shot at Sochi anyway, and in three years, Traktor Chelyabinsk never won a KHL championship. So in the spring of 2014, Kuznetsov decided it was finally time to come to America to start a new hockey career.
Thirteen months later, he became the first Capitals rookie to score the game-winning goal in a game seven. It was, perhaps, the biggest tally of his life. In the span of one season, Kuznetsov went from a shaky rookie to a electric, though mature, game breaker. He play was particularly notable in this first round series with New York, with three goals and four points. When asked about his brilliant exhibition after game seven, Kuznetsov displayed his trademark humble demeanor.
“I don’t care about my points,” he said. “I care about we go to next round. That’s very important for me.”
Kuznetsov then looked back at his time in Russia, a place where he shined individually, but failed to capture any of the ultimate goals in the sport — the kind that are awarded to a group.
“My last three seasons, I scored the goals, could do it overseas, but I never win,” he said of his KHL days. “I want to play team hockey. That’s what we’re doing right now.”
Hyped for so long, Kuznetsov teammates didn’t know what to expect when he arrived last March. Was he another talented Russian skater who lacked the desire to be a cog in a larger unit or just a kid who wanted to make sure he was ready before moving to a different continent? After Kuznetsov’s 97 NHL games, his teammates have a clear answer to that question.
“From day one, I was shocked by how mature he was, how well spoken,” defenseman John Carlson said. “He came in, call him what you want, but he was one of the most talented players in the league as soon as he got here. I don’t think it took him long to adjust to this style of game. I’m just happy for him because you could tell from day one that he wanted to do whatever it took to win, not just for himself but for us.”
Braden Holtby also had high praise for Kuznetsov’s play, this time on the other side of the ice.
“We watch video everyday and he’s constantly in the good clips of where he’s supposed to be in the D-Zone, support on the ice,” Holtby said. “He’s a kid that is very intelligent. He really cares about improving. Not just scoring goals, but improving his game to help the team. There isn’t a better guy in this dressing room to score that big goal.”
For his heroics, Kuznetsov was awarded the team’s Honest Abe player of the game.
While every other member of the Capitals described the goal in awe-inspired tones, Kuznetsov wouldn’t budge from his matter of fact style. To him, it was just a goal that happened to help his team win. But regardless of what Kuznetsov said Monday night, that goal was special. Alex Ovechkin probably summed it up the best.
“That Kuzy goal, it was pretty sick!” the captain said.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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