ARLINGTON, Va. – During a third-period rush against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday, Washington Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov single-handedly slinked through three opposing skaters, each futilely flailing at the puck when Kuznetsov closed in on a scoring chance.
Capitals coach Barry Trotz has often characterized such displays of Kuznetsov's natural talent by saying that he must have the puck on a string. That offensive ability has started to emerge, evidenced by Kuznetsov's play since the Capitals reconvened after the All-Star break.
In the past seven games, Kuznetsov has two goals and seven points. All seven have come at even strength, which leads the Capitals and NHL since Jan. 27, according to war-on-ice.com.
"It's seems like he's at the top of his game right now," forward Jason Chimera said.
The key for Kuznetsov, according to Trotz, has been comfort. In his first full NHL season, the 22-year-old rookie has had to orient himself to a new position, adjust to the League's more rigorous playing style and master the English language. Kuznetsov initially struggled, bouncing around the lineup as a result.
Lately, though, Kuznetsov has settled into his role as Washington's second-line center and gradually earned Trotz's trust, particularly in defensive-zone assignments. Kuznetsov has started 24 even-strength shifts in the defensive zone since Jan. 27, according to war-on-ice.com, compared to 22 in the offensive zone and 18 in the neutral zone.
"Whenever you can have the coach's confidence to put you out in all situations, it makes it easier for him to run the bench and it makes it easier for us to play, because we know we can be put out in all situations," said forward Troy Brouwer, who has spent most of the season as the right wing on Kuznetsov's line. "With [Kuznetsov] starting to really come through with his offensive ability and get himself on the scoresheet, it's only going to be good things for our line, which means we're going to get to play more, we're going to be utilized a little more."
Stronger play away from the puck and growing familiarity with the League has allowed Kuznetsov to flash the playmaking skill the Capitals knew he had.
"I think with any young player…you start playing more games and you recognize more players and you get to know the League a little bit," Trotz said. "You start to feel comfortable."
The Philadelphia Flyers are attempting to remain relevant in the Stanley Cup Playoff race in the Eastern Conference. They have won six of their past 10 (6-3-1), but trail the Boston Bruins by 11 points for the second wild-card spot.
"In the end, it's all about finding ways to win the games," forward Jakub Voracek, who is without a shot in the past two games, told the Flyers official website. "We have to make sure we play a good road game and keep things simple because things are very tight for everything and not many goals are being scored. We have to make sure we are patient."
Here are the projected lineups:
Brayden Schenn – Claude Giroux – Jakub Voracek
Ryan White – Scott Laughton – Wayne Simmonds
R.J. Umberger – Sean Couturier – Matt Read
Chris VandeVelde – Pierre-Edouard Bellemare – Vincent Lecavalier
Nick Schultz – Mark Streit
Andrew MacDonald – Nicklas Grossmann
Michael Del Zotto – Luke Schenn
Scratched: Zac Rinaldo (suspension), Carlo Colaiacovo
Injured: Michael Raffl (illness), Braydon Coburn (lower body)
Alex Ovechkin – Nicklas Backstrom – Marcus Johansson
Jason Chimera – Evgeny Kuznetsov – Troy Brouwer
Brooks Laich – Eric Fehr – Joel Ward
Andre Burakovsky – Jay Beagle – Tom Wilson
Brooks Orpik – John Carlson
Karl Alzner – Matt Niskanen
Jack Hillen – Mike Green
Scratched: Aaron Volpatti, Michael Latta, Cameron Schilling
Injured: Dmitry Orlov (wrist), John Erskine (neck surgery)
Status report: Green, who missed Washington's 3-2 shootout win against the Ducks on Friday with a lower-body injury, will be a game-time decision. Trotz said Friday that he believes Green will play.
Who's hot: Holtby has allowed two goals in his past four starts, the first Capitals goaltender since Jim Carey in March/April 1996 to allow no more than two goals over a four-start span in one season, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Four of Holtby's six shutouts this season have been against Metropolitan Division rivals, including a 21-save shutout against the Flyers on Jan. 14.