The Russians knew their captain was good.
But nine points good?
Yevgeni Kuznetsov, the only returning player from Russia’s gold medal-winning squad last year, came within one point of Peter Forsberg’s all-time tournament record of 10 against Japan at the 1993 World Junior Championship with his performance Thursday night -- much to the awe and delight of his teammates.
“It was like ‘Are you kidding me, what are you doing?” Nail Yakupov said after the game. “He’s amazing, you know? He did everything today. He’s a great player. It’s his second World Juniors and he plays in the KHL. He plays like an NHL player.”
After being held off the scoresheet through the first 20 minutes by Latvia, Kuznetsov exploded, recording points on six straight Russian goals before adding three more points – including his hat trick goal -- in the third period.
Making the feat all that more impressive is the fact Kuznetsov, a native of Chelyabinsk, was held pointless in Russia’s first two games against Switzerland and Slovakia. His nine-point outing now gives him a share of the tournament lead in points with teammate Nikita Gusev.
“He played really good the first two games too, but he had, I don’t know, 10, nine points?” said Alexander Khokhlachev, who had two goals himself in the game. “He was great.”
Kuznetsov didn’t know he was knocking on history’s door.
“I was kidding with the coach saying ‘Can I go for another shift and get another point’,” Kuznetsov said through a translator. “I wasn’t expecting to be one point shy. Someone told me I was one score away from Forsberg’s record. I thought it was a joke. Forsberg, you don’t take those people out of first place that easy.”
Kuznetsov, a first-round pick of the Washington Capitals (No. 26) in the 2010 draft, even had the praise of Russian coach Valeri Bragin.
“I was very pleased with how he played,” Bragin said through a translator. “It’s exactly what we’re expecting. The whole game just worked out great.”
Khokhlachev hopes Kuznetsov left some in the tank when Russia plays Sweden on New Year’s Eve, a likely battle for first place in Group A that will earn the victor a bye into the tournament’s semifinal.
“I hope he plays the same way next game too,” Khokhlachev said.
Kuznetsov cautioned against another nine-point outing at the expense of the Swedes, though.
“There is total respect there, with Team Sweden,” Kuznetsov said. “It’d be nice to be the winner of that game and have a couple of days off. It will be a hard game on New Year’s Eve.”