One year ago, Evgeny Kuznetsov came to North America. On a spring morning, he took the ice for the first time in a Washington uniform after signing a two-year entry level contract. Save for Capitals coaches, Kuznetsov was alone. Still, cameras followed him incessantly down the ice.
Soon after, RMNB spoke to Kuznetsov for the first time. Last Sunday, we did it again. There was a fair bit to discuss. For Kuznetsov, it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic shift in just one season. So far, he’s been a fourth liner, a second-line second, a healthy scratch, and finally, a playoff hero. Off the ice, Kuznetsov endeared himself to his teammates and became a media darling.
Naturally, we had both asinine and serious questions for Kuzy. He happily obliged.
When it comes to handing out cool nicknames to their teammates, we think hockey players are second to none. The current crop of Capitals are certainly doing their fair share of creative nicknaming. When the NHL mic’d up Tom Wilson for a first round game against the Islanders, we learned that Alex Ovechkin’s moniker is Destroyer – or at least that’s what Willy Baby calls him. And who can forget the “Big Cheese” Joel Ward; I mean, how can it possibly get any cooler than Big Cheese!?
In my opinion, it just did, courtesy of the two Caps players, who, as The Washington Post recently discovered, developed a strong and somewhat surprising friendship during the course of this season: Russian rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov and grizzled American veteran Brooks Orpik.
At 12:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jay Beagle won the opening faceoff of game two of Metropolitan Division Final against the New York Rangers. Instead of controlling the puck, however, the Capitals allowed the Rangers to set up for a rush out their defensive zone. As the Rangers took the puck up the ice, Washington’s top forward and defensive lines jumped on the ice. Brooks Orpik didn’t do so fast enough. Jesper Fast fed the puck to Chris Kreider in front. Thirty-eight seconds into the game, Washington was down one-nil. By the end of the first period, New York had a two-goal lead. The Caps had been outshot 15-4, completely outmatched for the first 20 minutes of play.
“I think we had a great start,” defenseman Marc Staal told reporters at the team hotel on Sunday.
But instead of sitting on their lead as they did in game two, the Rangers only plan to press more on Monday.
“It’s one thing to stay patient,” Staal said. “I think it’s another thing to stay aggressive.”
Alex Ovechkin has never made it past the second round of the playoffs. It’s a trite fact, but unavoidable. He’s been in the NHL since 2005, with his window as a primary goal-scorer closing. In 10 years, he has yet to win a Stanley Cup. Some core players around him, like Mike Green, are likely to leave this summer or within the next few years. This may be Ovechkin’s best chance to win a Cup as the undisputed leader of the Washington Capitals. Ovechkin seems to know that. In this year’s Division Final against the Rangers, DC’s captain has put on an astonishing display of talent and dedication, nearly winning games for the Capitals off his play alone. On Saturday, he came up short, but it was another immortal individual performance.
“He’s a force,” coach Barry Trotz said. “No question.”
Midway through the third period, Washington was down 3-1, having just given up a crushing goal to Rangers forward Derick Brassard. Just 90 seconds before Rangers fans were to begin their eight-minute mark “Ovi Sucks! Ovi Sucks! Ovi Sucks!” onslaught, Ovechkin bumbled down the ice with three Rangers on him. He knifed straight through Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, New York’s top defenders, as the two hopelessly whacked at Ovi. Falling to his knees, he let off a perfectly placed wrist shot that went top shelf on Henrik Lundqvist. It was a goal that was nearly impossible to imagine another player in the NHL scoring. It was utter brilliance, under immense pressure, on a huge stage. Save for the cheers of Capitals players, MSG fell silent.
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.”
The Capitals are clawing their way out of a two-goal, and it’s Evgeny Kuznetsov who is digging deepest. After getting denied on a wild chance a few minutes earlier, Kuzy hit the back of the net six minutes into the second period.
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.