If the Capitals wind up making the Stanley Cup playoffs this season, Evgeny Kuznetsov will be a big reason why.
The 21-year-old rookie from Chelyabinsk, Russia already has scored a pair of shootout goals and has assisted on five others. And on Tuesday night his first NHL goal with 41.5 seconds remaining in regulation night gave the Capitals a crucial point and helped move them into a four-way tie for the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots.
“It’s important for us, it’s important for him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who reached into the Kings net to retrieve the puck for Kuznetsov, who was busy celebrating with his other teammates in the near corner. “It’s a good memory he’ll have his whole life.”
Earlier on Tuesday Kuznetsov sat down with CSNWashington.com for a casual talk about how he’s adapted since arriving in Washington on March 8.
CSN: What are some of the differences you’re seeing between the KHL [Kontinental Hockey League] and the NHL?
Kuznetsov: Different rink. It’s a pretty easy [simple] game here. More dumps, more forechecking. It’s a physical game. There are a lot of games, good practices. In KHL we have more time between games. More practice. I don’t say it’s bad. For me, it’s good. For older guys, I don’t know how it is for them.
CSN: With the increased physical play, how are you feeling at the end of games?
Kuznetsov: Every game is different. If you win you have more emotion. If you lose it’s like bad tired.
CSN: How do you like living here so far?
Kuznetsov: I like it all. Life, the hockey, the atmosphere, the guys, people. Everything is good.
CSN: How are things different here in the way you are treated?
Kuznetsov: Nice planes, nice dinners. If you want dinner at hotel, you go to restaurant. Russia is like that, too. In KHL life is good, too. But here is best.
CSN: What do you miss about Russia?
Kuznetsov: I miss my parents, my wife, my doggie. But I’m here playing hockey and it’s good for me. I don’t have time to miss.
CSN: Will your family be joining you?
Kuznetsov. My wife maybe come before playoffs. My parents next season.
CSN: And how is life living with Ovi?
Kuznetsov: No, no, no. I live in apartment now. Ovi’s place was nice, but I’m on my own now.
Kuznetsov began his Capitals career on a fourth line but has spent the past four games playing on a second line with center Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer. Capitals coach Adam Oates said he sees Kuznetsov gaining confidence with each game. In his first eight NHL games he has one goal and five assists, along with a pair of shootout tallies.
Oates said the fact Kuznetsov is making big plays late in games tells him his fitness and energy levels are where it needs to be.
“In overtime [against the Sharks on Saturday] he made a great play to Orly [Dmitry Orlov] that could have won the game,” Oates said. “I don’t think Orly was quite ready for it. So after playing a whole game and into overtime he had the presence of mind to make a good play.”
Offensively, Oates said Kuznetsov is still adapting to the simpler dump-and-chase style of the NHL.
“We forecheck more as a league,” Oates said. “[In the KHL] they enter the zone differently. They’re willing to try plays on the blue line a lot, moreso than we are here.” Defensively, Oates said Kuznetsov, who is playing left wing for the first time in his career, is still learning how to make the proper reads when backchecking.
“Playing his strong side is something he’s never done his whole life,” Oates said. “It’s a huge difference .I caught him a couple times coming back [into the defensive zone] on the wrong side.”
It is a minor blemish in what has been a smooth and productive transition for the Caps' 21-year-old rookie.