kuznetsov-interview-first-game

Photo: @katie_brown47

Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s debut as a Washington Capital was a little like that first crepe, which, according to Russian proverb, tends to come out as a lump. The Capitals came agonizingly close to victory in Monday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but walked away with no points to show for their effort. In the end, that loss had little to do with how well the 21-year-old Russian rookie played.

Playing for a team on the wrong side the playoff line, Kuznetsov seemed to understand the gravity of his situation as he spoke in Russian after the game to Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo Sports, Igor Tichonenko of Voice of America, and yours truly. Zhenya didn’t really want to talk about his individual performance, no matter how much it probably meant to him. The team lost, he wasn’t able to help, and that’s what was on his mind.

Here is the translation of our short conversation.

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FehrGoalPenguins

Eric Fehr celebrates his goal on Monday. (Photo: Rob Carr)

The Capitals have scored 185 goals this season. Alex Ovechkin has 44 of them. For most of the season, the team has struggled with secondary scoring. Lately, however, some of their complementary players are coming alive.

Troy Brouwer has eight goals in 11 games. Brooks Laich had goals in two straight games coming into Monday. Though Laich has being missing practices and morning skates due to a lingering groin injury, he played great against the Penguins, scoring a goal that was later credited to Nick Backstrom. Laich did register an assist, marking his third straight game with a point.

Monday, the third line of Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, and Joel Ward provided half of the Capitals’ offense in a 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh. They greatly titled the ice in their favor, scoring the Caps’ first goal early in the game.

“I thought Fehrsie’s line might’ve had the best game they’ve had all year,” head coach Adam Oates said. “You feel it on the bench. You hear the guys talking on the bench. Your job is to try to have the next line follow and keep it going.”

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KuznetsovMeetsMedia

Photo: Chris Gordon

At Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Sunday morning, a dozen reporters and three photographers watched Evgeny Kuznetsov skate around for 45 minutes. It was eight in the morning and he was the only player on the ice. Fans held up signs welcoming him in Russian and wore his KHL jersey in the stands. The day before, Kuznetsov had signed a two-year entry-level contract with Washington, ending a four year battle to bring him over from the KHL after being drafted 26th overall by the Capitals in 2010.

“My contract is over,” Kuznetsov told reporters gathered in the Kettler conference room. “I’m excited. All is good.”

“Any hockey player wants to play in the NHL, wants to win the Cup,” he added. “It’s my dream to play in the NHL. I’m happy to see you. I’m ready 100 percent. I want to play.”

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AlznerGoal

Photo: Rob Carr

If the Caps squeak into the playoffs, you might have to thank Karl Alzner. Not for his defense — something a bit lacking on the Caps lately — but his offense. With 10:15 left in an important game against the Phoenix Coyotes, Karl unleashed a wrist shot from the near point, which went through traffic before beating Mike Smith over his right shoulder. Though Washington looked lifeless for the first 50 minutes, that goal ignited an incredible comeback, featuring two goals in 32 seconds and two points in the standings.

“I was excited,” Alzner told reporters after the game. “Everyone seemed really excited. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was me who scored it and not a guy who normally scores, but people seemed really up after that. It was the perfect momentum swing and the perfect line to come out right after that. It was the perfect storm for us.”

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McPheeKuznetsov

Photo: Carolyn Kaster

Visual approximation

Visual approximation

On June 25 2010, the Washington Capitals selected Evgeny Kuznetsov 26th overall. They saw him as one of the top players in the draft. He had only fallen so low, the Capitals thought, because some teams were uncertain when or if he would come to North America. George McPhee thought he could bring the 18-year-old Russian over within a year. One thousand three hundred fifty-two days later, Kuznetsov signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Caps.

“We’ve been working on it for four years,” McPhee told reporters before Washington’s game against Phoenix on Saturday. “It’s kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster when he walked in. We’ve heard of you, but we haven’t seen you. There he was and I found it hard to believe he was standing there after all this. It’s a pretty neat feeling that this kid’s in the fold and he’s a pretty darn good player.”

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gmgm

Photo: Mark Buckner

(Photo: Mark Buckner)

Coming into the 2014 NHL trade deadline, some fans feared Caps general manager George McPhee would make a drastic move in the hopes of securing a playoff spot. Instead, he made three reasonable ones. The Caps got better this year without harming themselves in the future.

The biggest deal was the final one, with the Caps sending Michal Neuvirth and the newly acquired Rostislav Klesla to the Buffalo Sabres for Caps killer Jaroslav Halak and a third-round pick.

“I think we start with Neuvirth, and he wasn’t happy being a number two,” McPhee told reporters at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. “We tried to accommodate him. We brought in an experienced guy. I think it’s an upgrade on the tandem which is what we wanted to accomplish.”

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Photo: Jeff Gross

The Caps are buyers. Earlier today, Washington acquired Dustin Penner from the Anaheim Ducks in exchange for a fourth round pick in the 2014 draft, which the Caps got from the Ducks in the Mathieu Perreault trade. Penner should slot in as the first or second-line left wing for the Caps, providing some net crashing for their skill lines. He filled that role admirably in Orange County, picking up 32 points so far this season playing on the top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.

“Hopefully it’s similar to the way Getz and Perry were,” Penner said of the possibility of playing with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. “We were able to generate offense.”

“I hope to be in the lineup tomorrow,” he added by phone from LAX. “If not then I rushed for nothing.”

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The Risk and Reward of Dmitry Orlov and Mike Green

OrlovGreenFlyers

Photo: Evan Vucci

Thursday night, defense partners Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov were on the ice for two goals against. On Florida’s first goal, Jesse Winchester torched Orlov, blowing past him on the far wall. For the Panthers second goal, the duo left men wide open in front of Braden Holtby before Brad Boyes flipped the puck in.

Sunday afternoon, however, the pair was brilliant — at least for the first 50 minutes. Orlov had the first multi-goal game of his career while Green racked up three assists. It’s usually a zero-sum game with Greenlov: they either win big or lose badly.

Today, though, it was both. With 10 minutes left in game, Orlov went after Brayden Schenn, who had just hit him behind the net. Dima unleashed a brutal board in the corner, receiving a well-deserved five minute major. The Flyers got scored on the ensuing power play. They added two more to stun the Caps in their first game back at home since the Olympic break. Orlov and Green, naturally, were on the ice for the game-tying goal.

“He didn’t change,” head coach Adam Oates said of Orlov’s hit. “He was on the same shift and he went right back after him.”

“You’ve got to suck it up when it’s your turn,” the coach continued. “They hit hard too. They’re big boys too. They’ve got to push, they’re losing. They’ve got to push. We’ve got to be able to handle that.”

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Ovi celebrates his 800th career point. (Photo: Alex Trautwig)

Alex Ovechkin is hitting a lot of milestones lately. So far this season he’s tallied his 1000th professional points, become the franchise leader in power play goals, and scored his 400th career goal. With two goals against the Bruins on Saturday, Ovi hit 800 points. He should hit 50 goals by the end of year too.

“It’s history,” Ovi told reporters after the game. “You always wants to be in the history. You always want to be on top of everybody. I try to do my best, but without my linemates and teammates I didn’t get those kind of points.”

Once again, this underscores the remarkable year Ovi has had. Ovechkin has a stunning 73 regular season goals since February of 2013. Under Adam Oates, Ovi has gone from an oft-criticized washed up star to the best sniper in the game — though, of course, he’s still criticized.

“I feel good about myself,” Ovi said. “I have a good feeling about my shot. Every time when I have opportunity to shoot the puck I’m going shoot.”

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SteveOleksy

Photo: Kyle Mace/Sweetest Hockey on Earth

Photo: Kyle Mace/Sweetest Hockey on Earth

Photo: Kyle Mace/Sweetest Hockey on Earth

On January 20, Steve Oleksy was waived by the Washington Capitals. He had been called up less than a year before, after years toiling away in the AHL and ECHL. In his first shot in the NHL, the minor league veteran became punching fan favorite and a serviceable third pairing defenseman. The Caps soon signed him to a three-year, one-way deal. He played 61 games, scoring three goals.

This year, though, the Caps have gone through 13 defensemen. Once John Erskine came back from injury, the Caps had no desire to keep Oleksy’s inflexible contract. Caps head coach Adam Oates said the team hoped, for Oleksy’s sake, that he would be picked up by another NHL squad. He wasn’t. On Sunday, Oleksy returned to the Verizon Center for the first time since being sent down. His Hershey Bears played the Syracuse Crunch in the AHL Showcase, an ostensibly neutral site game created to introduce the American Hockey League to big-league cities.

“The fans really showed me a lot of support,” Oleksy told me after the game. “To come back here and play in front of them was a great feeling. I appreciate everything they’ve done for me. The guys were great to me during my time here.”

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