Down two goals to the New York Rangers at the tail end of the second period on Saturday, the Capitals were on a desperate search for points on the scoreboard. With 6:01 left in the frame, Evgeny Kuznetsov pulled a goal out of thin air, as he has so many times during these playoffs. Kuznetsov’s surprising and alert goal put the Caps within one, almost leading to a stunning comeback. Despite a late-game flourish, Washington lost. Tied for the Capitals team lead in playoff goals with Alex Ovechkin, Kuznetsov was once again superb. Nevertheless, the result was not good enough for him.
“Today I score, but next game another guy score,” Kuznetsov told me. “Who cares right now who score today? We lose the game.”
Wednesday morning, I set off to Kettler Capitals Iceplex on a serious mission. I was on deadline, working on a story on Braden Holtby for The New York Times. I paced around the rink until the locker room opened. When Karl Alzner, Holtby’s longtime teammate, became available, I prepared to pepper him with questions about Holtby’s breakout season, but Karl had other ideas.
“Hey, I gotta ask *you* a question!” Alzner exclaimed, pointing out the baby blue Apple Watch on my wrist. “How did you get that so fast?”
The Washington Capitals dominated play in game seven against the New York Islanders through two periods. They were constantly parked in the Isles zone, putting pucks on goaltender Jaroslav Halak with ease. The Islanders could barely muster a whimper, with just six shots on goal as the middle frame wound down. Somehow, though, Washington hadn’t found a way to convert: missed deflections, timely saves, and bad bounces led to a scoreboard that reflected little about what happening on the ice.
Then, with 1:25 left in the second period, Joel Ward broke through, poking Brooks Orpik‘s shot through the legs of Halak. Verizon Center erupted into a shining display of pure human joy. But it was still full of Washington Capitals fans, ready to have their hearts ripped out with final game, final period collapse. And just three minutes and 13 seconds into the closing frame, Frans Nielsen did just that with an innocent-looking wrist shot from the slot that trickled through Braden Holtby’s pads. With that, the game was tied. Though the Caps had dominated play, the game looked like it would end with another bitter, bruising fight, with one bad bounce deciding each team’s fate.
But instead, the game-winner would buck the thuggery the series had shown. With around seven minutes left in the zero-sum game, Evgeny Kuznetsov picked up Jason Chimera‘s pass at the far wall, before cutting right through the heart of the New York zone. The play was magisterial, with Kuznetsov floated past Islanders defenders. Instead of firing the puck off at his first look at the net, Kuznetsov held on to it until he got to the near circle. That’s when Halak went down. Kuznetsov saw an opening.
“I just put puck in the net,” he told reporters after the game.
Evgeny Kuznetsovjust scored the biggest goal of his life. His third period goal closed the Nassau Coliseum forever (thank god) and sent the Caps to the second round of the playoffs where they’ll face those danged New York Rangers. After the game, CSN Washington’s Al Koken spoke to Kuznetsov about his goal, and Kuzy dropped some more broken-English pearls of wisdom.
One-by-one, as they stepped off the ice and into the locker room at their Virginia practice facility, mic flags went flying into the faces of members of Washington Capitals. Tonight, the team will play its eighth game seven since the Ovechkin era began. Five of those games have ended with crushed looks on the faces of the boys from Arlington. The questions were obvious.
“The media is the only people that bring up the past,” Jason Chimera scoffed. “It’s history for a reason. We wanna make our own history tonight.”
If the Caps win today in game six, not only will they advance to the second round of the playoffs, but they’ll also close Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum forever. Next year, the Islanders are moving to Brooklyn, NY, to play in the Barclays Center.
When CSN Washington’s Chuck Gormley asked Caps captain Alex Ovechkin about this possibility on Friday, he strayed from the team’s message that it was just another game.
For the last four seasons, the Capitals had been on a steady decline. During their Bruce Boudreau era runs for Presidents’ Trophy, they were D.C.’s team. For fans since the 70’s and young transplants in suits, Rocking the Red was all the rage.
In 2011, the team started going downhill. Boudreau was fired, with three coaches taking his place since then. Meanwhile, the Nationals got good. The Caps were no longer fashionable. The hockey wasn’t the same either. Instead of exciting run-and-gun matches, the Caps played overly defensive games and then, under Adam Oates, just plain bad ones, missing the playoffs for the first time in seven years. Despite claiming a sellout every night, Verizon Center was littered with empty purple seats.
“We love this,” Karl Alzner, who scored Thursday, told me. “The fact that we see everybody getting excited for it and feeling good about our team and about our chance at winning some games, that’s what’s exciting for us.”
There was a time when we doubted he’d ever show up, but, last March, Evgeny Kuznetsov finally came to the Caps. Three KHL seasons after George McPhee winked at a TSN camera and drafted the young Russian, Kuznetsov left his hometown team, Trakor Chelyabinsk, to live in Alex Ovechkin’s house in Arlington, Va., and play North American hockey. Thursday night was his coming out party.
After going scoreless in his first four career playoff games, Kuznetsov tallied two goals and an assist in game five. It wasn’t so much that he scored or recorded a team-high three points, it was the confidence that Kuznetsov oozed. We saw it on display all the time in the KHL– from his wacky celebrations, brash interviews, and constant production of highlight-reel plays– but that swagger hasn’t come easily this season. Kuznetsov had to learn a new position, center, and he had to learn how to be successful in a new, nuanced system under veteran head coach Barry Trotz. On top of that, the 22 year old had to learn a new culture and language.
On Thursday, those struggles and insecurities evaporated in front of 18,506 at Verizon Center. It was beautiful to watch.