A game between the Caps and Penguins is rarely overshadowed given the rivalry’s history and the team’s star-studded lineups. On Monday night, however, one young Russian stole the spotlight.
No, it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin, but Evgeny Kuznetsov who finally made his long-awaited Capitals debut.
Though head coach Adam Oates has spent the last few days trying to temper expectations for the 21-year-old forward, he was not able to dampen the excitement rippling through the fan base leading up to the game.
Fans roared when Kuznetsov jumped over the boards for his first shift and cheered uproariously when he was shown on the jumbotron.
Oates tried to ease him into the game, starting him on the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson, but it didn’t take long for Kuznetsov to show off some of the potential that has made fans so eager for his arrival in D.C.
“I thought he did great,” said Oates. The Caps’ bench boss has shown he has no qualms about protecting his budding stars with the 19-year-old Tom Wilson averaging only 7:19 minutes per game this season, but Kuznetsov showed everyone he needed to be on the ice.
The Caps’ 2010 first-round draft pick established his offensive skill set early on in the first period and was rewarded with time on the power play and on the top line with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. Kuznetsov finished with 10:22 total ice time on the night.
His best chance came on the power play in the second period. In his first taste of NHL power play action, Kuznetsov played on the goal line to the left of the goalie. He received the puck and rather than pass it to the middle or back out to the side, he instead quickly turned and tried to stuff the puck past Pittsburgh goaltender Jeff Zatkoff.
For a team with such a checkered history in the biggest moments, it was refreshing to see Kuznetsov look so comfortable in what was both his first NHL game and his first taste of the Washington-Pittsburgh rivalry.
Even with a good debut, Kuznetsov showed that he still has a ways to go before he can fully assimilate to his new team. He looked to be all over the ice in his first few shifts with seemingly little idea of where to go or what to do. His lack of practice time clearly showed as he had little cohesion with his linemates.
“I was a little bit worried the first time I stepped on the ice,” Kuznetsov said, “but with each shift I got better and better. I understood what I needed to do and how I needed to play.”
Oates reiterated his calls for patience after the game.
“I think you have to be patient and be realistic about expectations because it’s a foreign league for him, it’s a foreign system. He’s never played this way, he’s never played in front of this many people really. For me, I want to ease him in, use him as much as possible, but also be fair to him and give him a chance to grow with the team.”
Kuznetsov finished the night with two shots and one blocked shot. He will get another taste of this rivalry Tuesday, but this time in Pittsburgh.
How will he play away from the friendly confines of the Verizon Center and in front of the hostile crowd of the Consol Energy Center? If Monday night is any indication, it won’t bother him a bit.