Sunday, March 20, 2016

Evgeny Kuznetsov and skill to match for the Caps

By Larry Wigge

Every now and then, you're looking for one play that stands out as a game-breaking play.

On Friday night March 18, Evgeny Kuznetsov made three such mind-boggling plays in the Washington Capitals 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators.

Just as time was expiring on a Washington power play in the second period and while the Predators were trying to make a line change, Capitals goalie Braden Holtby fired a surprse pass up the right wing boards to Evgeny Kuznetsov just outside the blue line.

Kuznetsov entered the zone, wound up as if to launch a slapshot, then fired a perfect pass to Daniel Winnik, who just hopped over the boards. Winnik buried it from just above the goal line to even the game at 1-1 at the 7:52 mark of the second.

But that wasn't it ...

Four and a half minutes later, Kuznetsov made his trademark no-look drop pass from behind the net, feeding linemate T.J. Oshie for an easy goal.

And just 38 seconds into the third period, Andre Burkakovsky converted another Kuznetsov feed for goal.

One pass prettier than the next. But the no-look drop pass from behind net drew praise from both sides.

"Playing with Kuzy, those are the things you have to expect. He sees things that maybe only a handful of players in the league can see," Oshie said. "Even when it does come, you kind of think to yourself, 'How did he just do that?' "

Nashville goalie Carter Hutton was left shaking his head after the game.

"It was just a hell of a play by him," says Hutton. "I thought he was going to attack the net on the far side, so I dropped to cover."

Kuznetsov three primary assists was the 13th multiple-assist game this season -- just one fewer than Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlssson.

"It's hard to say. It just happens sometimes," Kuznetsov said, smiling like he'd just pulled the wool over another team's eyes again.

The 6-foot, 172-pounder from Chelyabinsk, Russia, continues to turn heads as an elite playmaker, as he's now up to a whopping 20 goals and 53 assists this season.

Now, that represents a resounding improvement over Kuznetsov's performance from one year ago, when he put up 11 goals and 26 assists.

What's even more impressive, however, is the fact that he leads the entire NHL with 40 primary helpers, which is five more than Patrick Kane and nine more than Karlsson.

In only his third season with the Caps, Kuznetsov is more than fulfilling Washington's hope for him when he was drafted 26 overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft.

"We had him rated high and in every mock draft we did," said George McPhee, who is now special adviser to New York Islanders GM Garth Snow. "Especially the day before the draft, we kept going over it and over it and over it."

Every time the same thing said McPhee.

"It was unanimous. 'We have to take this guy. He's just too talented not to take.' "

Nicklas Backstrom, the current Caps playmaker, on Kuznetsov, future playmaker, said, "He's gonna develop. He's already a top player, I think. He's a really talented guy. He's just gonna get better and better."

Get better he did.

Kuznetsov did not play his first NHL game until late in the 2013-14 season, partly because he would have to adapt to playing in North America and to learn the language -- something that has been aided by his sunny disposition and sense of humor.

His father, Evgeny, could not think of his son way over here. There phone conversations weren't very good. Until ...

Evgeny was part of the father's trip with the team the last two years and he went back home with word that his son was being treated extra special by the Capitals.

Back to the on-ice portion of this story as told to us by Capitals coach Barry Trotz.

"I always thought it was his stick that made him so good," Trotz maintained. "But I used his stick in practice and nothing magical happened.

"I gave it back and -- VOILA! -- he did it again."

Which lead Trotz to conclude, "Which leads me to believe that in his hands it is some kind of magic wand."

If the Chelyabinsk native ends the year on top, he would be the first Capitals player not named Alex Ovechkin or Backstrom to lead the team in scoring since 2003-04 when Robert Lang put up 70 points.

Kuznetsov seemed confused by the way players in the NHL, even Ovi, would dump the puck in instead of holding onto it looking for the perfect play or two or three.

When Trotz was in Detroit in early November, the coach was asked by Pavel Datsyuk how Kuznetsov was doing. "I told him, 'I need him to play more like Datsyuk.' Stay engaged, don't switch off under any circumstances, even when you lose the puck."

A dinner was set up with Datsyuk, his father and Kuznetsov. The perfect translation had been made.

"Kuzy is a very smart player and a person as well," Trotz added. "He understood what Pavel told him, and now he plays exactly how I wanted him to play then. The new aspects of his game allow him to utilize his terrific skating even better.

"Kuznetsov has an extremely high hockey IQ. He loves to study film. He sees what others don't."

All the great playmakers have a way to slow down the players ...

"His skating ability looks so effortless -- like Sergei Fedorov. And his head is never down looking at the puck," argued Brooks Orpik, who was played alongside Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. "It's like a basketball player with a great 'handle' on his dribble. So he sees everything in front of him on the ice."

New to the Capitals, but an NHL veteran with great aptitude is Justin Williams. He won a Stanley Cup in Carolina in 2006 and won in Los Angeles in 2012 and '14.

"He finds me even when I don't think I'm open," said Williams. "Option A is always getting him the puck because usually something good is going to happen. I work my butt off just so I can keep playing with him.

"You know, I don't want to take anything away from anyone else I've played with before, but he's one of the best I've played with, creatively. You have to expect the unexpected when you're with him. And he makes plays that you don't think that he sees, but he does. His imagination is going to catch teams off guard, catch players off guard, catch goalies off guard, but he works hard at it too, and that's the difference between skill guys who have success and skill guys who work hard who have success."

For Kuznetsov hockey is more ...

"Emotion. Happiness. You can't control it," he says. "Hockey is a religion in my country. Where I grew up, it was the only sport.

"No basketball, baseball. All day, every day, skate, skate, skate. Skill, skill, skill."

Another former King, Mike Richards says, "Speaking of seeing the ice, he's probably one of the best I've ever seen. Just pushing the pucks to open areas and skating to them ... and the position that he has on the ice to make some of the plays he does is impressive."

Barry Trotz has a way of making hockey much easier for everyone.

He says of Evgeni Kuznetsov, "He has a creative brain that makes it real fun to watch and a skill level that is off the charts."

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