Evgeny Kuznetsov was arguably the Capitals’ best player during the Capitals’ Stanley Cup run, ending the postseason with the most points in the NHL — 32 (12g, 20a) in 24 games. Kuzy played in all situations at 5v5, centering a first line consisting of Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, and received Conn Smythe Trophy consideration as playoff MVP.
Three years later, Kuzy finds himself at a bit of a crossroads. Coming back from COVID-19, the Chelyabinsk native found himself predominantly skating on a second line with Jakub Vrana and Daniel Sprong that was the second line in name only. The line was being matched up against other teams’ fourth lines, predominantly put on the ice for offensive zone starts, and typically benched down the stretch of games clearly due to Peter Laviolette’s lack of faith in their defense. Kuznetsov would get less ice time than both Nicklas Backstrom and fourth-line center Nic Dowd.
Kuznetsov, however, recently got promoted back to the first line and received a new opportunity from Peter Laviolette. Kuzy delivered against the New Jersey Devils on Thursday, scoring twice including the game-winning goal late in the third period.
Kuznetsov’s first goal came after he helped get the puck out of the zone at the other end. The talented playmaker drove the center lane and found an Alex Ovechkin rebound sitting in the slot. He skated until he found a hole and shot the puck past MacKenzie Blackwood with no angle.
Kuzy scored again in the third to give the Capitals a 4-3 lead. Kuzy one-timed a pass from Justin Schultz that deflected off a Devils’ defender and in.
The most eyebrow-raising stat, considering his recent use, was that Kuznetsov got the most ice time among all Capitals centers (19:30) and the second most of any forwards on the team. He’s also been more aggressive, putting three shots attempts or more at the net in five consecutive games, per Natural Stat Trick.
“I start understand more what the coach wants from me,” Kuznetsov said after the game. “After the pretty long break after COVID break, it wasn’t an easy one to get back in hockey shape. I hope I continue to grow and the team play much better and know we can be successful. I know it’s nice to get a couple of goals, but at the end of the day, we got two points. That’s all that matters right now.”
When asked what Laviolette wanted to see more out of him, the Russian center replied, “That’s not your business.”
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“The (player’s overall) game has to match the request and what players want,” Laviolette said. “Everybody wants to play in the last five minutes so the game has to match that I’m seeing on the ice.
“It was a pretty honest conversation. He wants to be trusted. He wants that responsibility and I was looking for more from his game. I was looking for more drive, more attack, more puck possession. I was looking for him to be a difference-maker.
“When those things happen, then I think the responsibility comes with it. It’s not like you get stuck and these guys can’t play late or they can’t play against other team’s best players, but the game has to match the game what they’re asking for and that I’m looking for as a coach. So we had a real good conversation. It was honest and he responded from there. He was looking for opportunity and I gave it to him, but prior to that, his game was in line with deserving those minutes.”
Kuznetsov now has nine points in his last eight games. And while his faceoffs are still a work in progress — he went 28 percent against the Devils, the league’s third-worst faceoff team — he looks to be following a plan and playing better system hockey.
“Coach trusts me more right now and he give me some opportunities,” Kuznetsov said. “I’ve been asking for that and he give me chances. So far I hope that I do everything he wants.”
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