We’ve been covering Evgeny Kuznetsov for the last five years with unequaled vigor. From the wacky celebrations to the KHL/NHL waffling, Kuznetsov’s been the focus of our website and my personal favorite hockey player even before he crossed the ocean last year. So relaying this next story is wild.
Before game seven on Monday, RMNB’s Chris Gordon was asked at practice through a spokesman where he got his new iPhone case. The case is white and has the RMNB logo on it. The person inquiring was Evgeny Kuznetsov.
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.
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.
Evgeny Kuznetsov just scored his first career NHL playoff goal. After winning a face-off right back to Karl Alzner, Kuzy skated hard to the net and set up camp in front of Jaro Halak. Alzner’s point shot was blocked, but Marcus Johansson managed to chip it up into the air, where Kuznetsov batted the puck into the net baseball-style.
Over the summer, Andre Burakovsky and Evgeny Kuznetsov participated in the NHL Rookie Showcase. The Caps teammates signed autographs and took photos for their first NHL trading cards. We also noticed they held hands with other NHL rookies and figure skated for reasons that were never completely clear.
Almost nine months later, now we know: Upper Deck hired a semi-professional figure skater to teach the rookies some… uh… new moves.
When the Caps played the Pens a few months ago, Alex Ovechkin slashed Kris Letang in the ankles, sending that game into pure chaos. On the next face-off, Chris Kunitz infinitely cross-checked Ovechkin. The Russian machine responded with infinite laughter.
It seems like Ovechkin’s best buddy Evgeny Kuznetsov learned from that example. On Sunday, Tyler Kennedy shoved Kuzy and was greeted with a laugh.