Evgeny Kuznetsov put on a clinic on Wednesday night at Capital One Arena, posting a four-point night to help the Capitals to a 5-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights in the first meeting between the two teams since Washington vanquished Vegas in the 2018 Stanley Cup Final just over four months ago.
Kuznetsov scored the game's first goal on a Washington power play late in the first period, and he added three sublime primary helpers as the game wore on, setting up linemate Alex Ovechkin for a pair of even-strength goals and feeding Nicklas Backstrom for the Caps' second extra-man strike of the night.
Video: Capitals top Golden Knights in Cup Final rematch
"He has gotten off to an excellent start to the season," says Caps coach Todd Reirden. "And how he finished the year last year, he is a difference maker. We're very fortunate to have a player like that, and he is just rounding out his game."
The Caps had difficulty gaining the attack zone and getting set up through their first power play and half of their second one, but once they were able to enter the zone and get settled, they quickly cashed in. Backstrom took the puck from John Carlson and held it along the right half wall. Sensing that Backstrom wasn't fond of his options at that moment, Kuznetsov shifted his position from the goal line off the right post to just above the paint. Backstrom put the puck right on his tape, and Kuznetsov angled it into the net and past Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury for a 1-0 Washington lead with 34.5 seconds remaining in the first.
"That far [defenseman] covered [T.J. Oshie] tight," recounts Kuznetsov, "and that's the green light for me to go there and give Nick the option. I didn't do anything with my stick; [Backstrom] just hit my stick and it went between [Fleury's] legs."
Vegas came out with more jam in the second, and the Knjghts had the Caps hemmed in their zone for a fair amount of the middle frame. Just after the midpoint of the period, the Caps were able to execute a defensive-zone exit, and Brett Connolly indirectly bounced the puck off the wall for Kuznetsov near the Vegas line. Kuznetsov gained the zone, settled and waited before pushing a perfect feed across for Ovechkin. From familiar left dot territory, Ovechkin one-timed a blast past Fleury for a 2-0 Washington lead at 10:18.
Vegas needed only 31 seconds with which to shrink the deficit back to a single goal. Former Caps center Cody Eakin - fresh off injured reserve and seeing his first action of the young season - scored an unassisted wraparound goal to make it a 2-1 game at 10:49.
Over the final half of the frame, Vegas continued to have the better of territory and possession, but Caps goalie Braden Holtby was sharp. Holtby made most of the saves look easy, but he made a strong stop on Pierre-Edouard Bellemare's backhand bid from the slot with about three minutes left in the second.
Video: Postgame Locker Room | October 10
Vegas got itself into some penalty trouble early in the third. The Knights killed off an early call on Colin Miller to stay within a goal of the Caps, but an offensive-zone tripping call on Erik Haula early in the third gave Washington the window it needed to restore its two-goal lead.
With Kuznetsov holding in Backstrom's usual half wall location, Backstrom stealthily curled around to the back door, just off the left pipe. Kuznetsov spotted him and fed him perfectly for an easy back door tap-in and a 3-1 lead at 5:08.
"It's just the way [the Knights] play," says Backstrom, in explaining his shift prior to the goal, which proved to be the game-winner. "As I've said many times before, teams are going to play us differently on the power play, but it's up to us to make reads and make sure we're finding those small holes out there."
Video: Todd Reirden Postgame | October 10
Each time the Caps took a two-goal lead, Vegas responded rather swiftly. Exactly two minutes after Backstrom's tally, Reilly Smith tied it for Vegas, redirecting Nick Holden's feed to make it a 3-2 game at 7:08 of the third. Seconds after that goal, Holtby made the most important stop of the contest, thwarting Haula from in tight to preserve the Caps' slim lead.
Just after Washington executed its third straight successful kill of the night, Kuznetsov and his linemates tore into Vegas ice on a three-on-two rush. The silky center fed Ovechkin, who scored from the right side to make it a 4-2 game at 10:33.
Again Vegas answered, but this time Max Pacioretty's goal was nullified when Washington challenged the goal, alleging offside. Video review proved the Caps to be correct, and Vegas wasn't able to do anything more offensively. Oshie scored into an empty net from the red line to account for the 5-2 final.
"They're a good team and we gave them too many power play chances," says Golden Knights coach Gerard Gallant. "Obviously with the power play they've got - I think they're running around 50 percent - it makes it pretty tough when you get two goals like that. They're going to make those plays. Their top guys are some of the best players in the world and they made their plays. That's how they beat us."