The 22-year-old center dazzled Thursday, scoring twice, helping set up another goal and displaying a variety of skills that have made him one of the best players in the world in his age group in a 5-1 victory against the New York Islanders in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference First Round series at Verizon Center.
Washington leads the best-of-7 series 3-2, and New York will need to find some answers after a line of Kuznetsov, Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera shredded the Islanders for much of the final two periods.
"[Kuznetsov] is growing," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "He's gotten used to the League. The first 40 games, it was a little bit of a mishmash of up, down and not knowing the League quite as well. Maybe not as comfortable in his role. Then you sort of get through there, and there's always a glass ceiling for young players [to break through]. I think he got through that, and you're seeing what he's capable of. He's a terrific player."
Kuznetsov was one of the most talented players in the 2010 NHL Draft but fell to the Capitals at No. 26 because of concerns about when he might arrive in North America. He cemented his place as one of the elite prospects in the sport by helping Russia win the gold medal at the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championships.
Then those concerns about his availability became reality. Former Capitals general manager George McPhee expected Kuznetsov to spend two years at home in Russia. It ended up being twice that time, though he did join Washington for the conclusion of the 2013-14 season.
Kuznetsov started slow in his first full season in the NHL. As the season progressed, he moved around in the lineup before settling in as the Capitals' No. 2 center, and his line was fantastic in Game 5 against the Islanders.
"At the time [of the 2011 WJC], it still wasn't sure if he was going to come over or not," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "I do remember in that gold-medal game, just the dominance in the third period. The puck possession and the skill and the creativity.
"He just kind of felt his way through it early on [this season] but you could see in practices, the skating and the skill, the puck possession, the creativity. You just have to get used to the grind, the competition, the physicality. Now he's really got his feet under him."
Kuznetsov is friends with the St. Louis Blues' Vladimir Tarasenko, who also was also drafted in 2010 and helped Russia win the 2011 WJC. Tarasenko was a breakout star in the NHL this season and has had two incredible games in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Kuznetsov has watched his pal's highlight-reel goals and kept tabs on his progress.
"I want to do the same [one-handed goal], but I don't have a chance like that," Kuznetsov said. "Dmitry Orlov is big friends with him and has lots of talks with him, Facetime, something like that. I talk to him sometimes. Right now, it is tough time for him and for me. Lots of hockey. You need time to recover. Sometimes too much time on the phone is not good."
There was a time when Kuznetsov was considered a better prospect than Tarasenko. It's possible those extra years in the Kontinental Hockey League stunted his ascension, but he looked every bit like a future superstar Thursday.
Kuznetsov dangled around and through New York defenders, protecting the puck and creating scoring chances. He has spent a lot of time playing with Johansson, but the addition of Chimera before Game 4 was a new wrinkle. They are three of the Capitals' swiftest skaters, and the Islanders defense corps could not contain them.
New York was without defensemen Travis Hamonic and Lubomir Visnovsky, forcing rookie Griffin Reinhart into the lineup, but the Islanders may need to opt for a speedier solution in Game 6 on Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, SN, TVA Sports) if those two stalwarts are still out.
After the game, Kuznetsov was trying very hard to stay on message. There's all kinds of personality and charisma in there though, and he let a little bit of seep out.
He's got a pretty good mentor for that sort of thing. When Kuznetsov, Orlov and Stanislav Galiev came to rookie development camp together in the summer of 2010, they stayed in Alex Ovechkin's house.
Kuznetsov has his own place now, but just a cursory scroll through Ovechkin's Twitter feed or Instagram page will disclose plenty of photos and videos of him hanging out with his younger Russian teammates.
"He's had a full year here with the Caps. He feels more comfortable," Ovechkin said of Kuznetsov. "You can see when he is on his game, he can control the puck very well. It is very hard to manage his speed and manage his opportunities to make these moves. He's a great passer, but today he was a scorer."
The Capitals have been searching for a No. 2 center to play behind Nicklas Backstrom for longer than Kuznetsov has been a member of the organization. A year and a half of Sergei Fedorov and a year of Mikhail Grabovski have been complemented by a long list of temporary solutions and wrong answers.
Kuznetsov can be that player. He had 37 points in 80 games this season, despite shifting from center to the wing and back, spending time on the fourth line and averaging 13:19 of ice time. He's not likely to be eighth among Capitals forwards in time on ice in future seasons.
If Thursday was a glimpse of what Kuznetsov can still become, he will have been worth the wait for Washington.
"Everybody wants to score the goals and do what they feel, but if you do the right things, stay on the plan, the goals and the pluses and the Cups will come," Kuznetsov said. "One guy doesn't win the Cup. The whole team wins the Cup."
Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer