Watch out NHL, on Friday night Evgeny Kuznetsov showed he is every bit as capable as the Caps envisioned him to be when they first drafted him in 2010.
And it’s only his third NHL game.
Kuznetsov recorded his first, second and third NHL points Friday in the Caps’ win over Vancouver. His three assists, including his third on the game winner, were instrumental in ensuring the Caps would not collapse yet again despite blowing another two-goal lead. He is proving to be a difference-maker already despite still adjusting to the NHL game.
“He is such a creative player,” said Tom Wilson, “A lot of fun to play with. The first couple of games he wasn’t sure, and he’s really finding his groove. Hopefully we can have some good chemistry for years to come.”
Kuznetsov’s first point came in the second period. With the Caps on the power play, he corralled an Alex Ovechkin shot that went wide and trickled around the boards. He passed it back to John Carlson on the point who found Ovechkin ready with the one-timer.
It was a secondary assist, but it clearly gave Kuznetsov confidence going forward.
Just 4:07 later, he did it again on a brilliant play to Wilson. Kuznetsov took a pass in the neutral zone from Jay Beagle, skated down the left side of the ice, wound up for a big slap shot…and passed it cross-ice to Wilson for the goal.
The pass was right on the money and the fake completely froze the defense.
Most importantly, Kuznetsov was able to step up when the team desperately needed him to. Blown leads have been a problem this season for the Caps and each time it happens it is hard for teams to recover. Kuznetsov tallied his first two career NHL assists and watched the team squander the two-goal lead he provided as Vancouver scored two goals back-to-back early in the third.
He didn’t pack it in, he didn’t sulk; instead, he just went right back to work.
With the team in desperate need of a goal and his line cycling in the offensive zone, Kuznetsov took the puck from one corner behind the net while fighting off a defender and skated to the opposite corner drawing a second defenseman. That left Nicklas Backstrom open behind the net for the pass. Two other defenders collapsed down low seeing Backstrom was open with the puck, leaving Mike Green open on the point for the goal.
It was a play created completely by Kuznetsov’s stick-handling and cycling work down low.
“[Kuznetsov] did a great job battling down the corner and keeping control of the puck,” said Green. “He made a great play to [Backstrom], and I noticed when Nicky was wheeling the net the he saw me before he even looked up.”
On a night when the Caps gave up a quick response goal and a two-goal lead, they still managed to come away with the victory, something they have failed to do in recent weeks. It was a win for the team, but it was a night that belonged to Kuznetsov who is developing even faster than any Caps fans could have hoped.
“I think last game in Pittsburgh he actually got a little feel of it,” said head coach Adam Oates. “You know you get your first point on the power play, which is kind of an easy point, but it still counts. You get your juices going. Great play on the second goal and then protecting the puck on a cycle, which is kind of something you don’t necessarily expect.”
You may be telling yourself that it was only one game and it’s too early to get excited, but Kuznetsov’s performance tonight puts him in rare company. He is the first Caps rookie to earn three assists in a game since Nicklas Backstrom in 2008. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is also the first player to record three or more assists in one of his first three NHL games since Anze Kopitar recorded three in his second game in 2006.
The question now for Kuznetsov is how long he will continue to play on the fourth line with Wilson and Beagle. If this is how he can produce with them, how can he perform given more minutes with Backstrom and Ovechkin? And how much is Oates willing to expose his budding star? Given how little playing time he has given Wilson this season, it wouldn’t be a shock if Oates chose to keep Kuznetsov on the fourth line for the remainder of the season.
Even so, Kuznetsov proved Friday night that he can produce even when given little playing time. If his three-point night is any indication, the future looks bright for this young Russian.