Photo: Rob Carr
In Evgeny Kuznetsov’s first NHL game on Monday, he skated a little over 10 minutes on the fourth line, briefly seeing time on the power play. It was clear the young Russian was an NHL rookie playing on a team he had yet to practice with. Things got better the next day though. In Pittsburgh, Kuznetsov registered nearly 15 minutes of ice time, collecting three shots on goal. If not for a confounding leg save by Marc-Andre Fleury, the 21-year-old Russian would have scored his first NHL goal.
On Friday, Kuznetsov continued the trend. He picked up the first three points of his North American career. The 2010 first round pick collected the first two in just over three minutes, assisting on successive goals by Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson in the second period. He added the third on Washington’s go ahead goal in the third period. The Caps won 4-3.
“I hope we win today,” he told 15 members of Washington Capitals press corps gathered around his locker. “That’s first for me.”
With every game, Kuznetsov becomes more comfortable with Capitals system and his linemates. Thanks to Washington’s schedule, he has practiced just once with his teammates since signing with the Caps on Saturday.
“Good partners,” Kuznetsov said of his linemates. “I like these guys. I like all guys.”
Head coach Adam Oates saw Kuznetsov progress as the game went on.
“The first period I saw a couple times where he was a little bit out of position, but as the game went along it got better,” Oates said. “It’s a transition. It’s gonna take time. There’s gonna be moments where he looks lost. There’s moments when we all look lost out there. He’s no different.”
With the Caps on the power play, Kuznetsov’s first point helped give the Capitals the lead against Vancouver. With 11:33 left in the second period, Kuznetsov corralled a loose puck from his position on the half wall. Next, he fired off a pass to John Carlson, the point man, who fed it to Ovi in the Ovi spot. You know what happens then.
Shown on the big screen after the TV timeout, Kuznetsov got a deafening ovation from the Verizon Center crowd after his first career assist, which he acknowledged by skating around in circles with a steely gaze.
His second assist was magisterial, a full display of Kuznetsov’s skills. Taking the puck into the zone on the left wing, Kuznetsov faked a shot before firing a brilliant cross-ice slap pass to Wilson. Willy Baby wristed the puck home to give Washington a two goal lead.
“My partner get open,” said Kuznetsov. “He took puck, like good shot. Thanks to my partner, Willy.”
Wilson returned the praise.
“Kuzy made a great pass,” Wilson said. “He’s such a creative player.”
“First couple games he wasn’t sure,” he added of Kuznetsov. “He’s really finding his groove. Hopefully we can have good chemistry for years to come.”
Friday night was a full display of where the Capitals are and what they might have in the future. After Kuznetsov’s lovely assists gave them a two goal lead, Washington’s defense allowed the Canucks to tie it back up, with the Caps getting outshot 17-3 in the third period.
Two minutes and forty five seconds later, however, Kuznetsov fed the puck to Nicklas Backstrom behind the Canucks net, who gave to Mike Green at the point. Kuznetsov had his third point of the night. He is the first rookie since Anze Kopitar in 2006 to tally three assists in one of his first three games. After the game, he deflected attention away from himself.
“Thanks for partners,” Kuznetsov said.