Evgeny Kuznetsov coming up big for Capitals in playoffs
Washington center looks to continue impressive postseason run in Game 6 against Penguinsby Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / NHL.com Staff Writer
WASHINGTON -- When the Washington Capitals lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season, Evgeny Kuznetsov did a vanishing act.
A secondary assist on Marcus Johansson's power-play goal in Game 2 was his only point in the best-of-7 series, capping off a disappointing Stanley Cup Playoff when Kuznetsov had one goal and one assist in 12 games.
This season, Kuznetsov is pulling off a different kind of magic trick in the second round against the Penguins, including his impossible-angle winning goal in the Capitals' 4-2 victory in Game 5 on Saturday. The Capitals trail the series 3-2 with Game 6 in Pittsburgh on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).
If the Capitals win Monday, Game 7 would be Wednesday in Washington. A 3-2 overtime loss in Game 6 ended their season in 2016. If they are to write a different ending this time around, Kuznetsov will likely be at the center of it.
"I live for these moments, for those type of games," he said Saturday. "I can trade so many games for those games."
Although he struggled with the pressure of the Capitals' unmet expectations of postseasons past, many of Kuznetsov's teammates have been gripping their sticks so tight, they've been grinding them into composite dust. But Kuznetsov has been playing freely, with a joy that appeared to be missing from his game during the playoffs last season.
The gregarious and sometimes-goofy 24-year-old is tied with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin for the Capitals' lead with five goals in the playoffs. He leads all players with four goals in the series against the Penguins, including one in each of the past three games.
Video: PIT@WSH, Gm5: Kuznetsov scores from a sharp angle
"You think I ever feel tight?" Kuznetsov said. "I'm always loose, try to enjoy the hockey. I live for those type of games myself. That's why we practice all summer. That's why we play 82 [regular-season] games, for those moments."
One year ago, those moments seemed to get the best of him in the playoffs after he led the Capitals with 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) during the regular season. But in his first NHL playoff experience in 2014-15, Kuznetsov led all rookies with five goals, including the Game 7 winner in the Eastern Conference First Round against the New York Islanders.
Now, after his mysterious disappearance last season, Kuznetsov is scoring big goals in the playoffs again.
"It's a process I think he learned from last year, that you've really got to be able to work for your inches," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said Sunday. "That's probably the whole mindset and I think he's embracing the playoffs, sort of the hardness of the playoffs, how difficult it is to maybe produce in the playoffs and he's taking it on."
Kuznetsov's winning goal on Saturday, which broke a 2-2 tie 7:20 into the third period, came on a shot from almost at the goal line below the left circle. It somehow found an opening between goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and the left post.
Kuznetsov, who had 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists) during the regular season, sometimes is guilty of passing up open shots in search of better opportunities for his linemates. This time, after the puck bounced directly to him following Johansson's blocked attempt, he shot immediately, though he saw he had a difficult angle.
"I knew Fleury always comes around for the first shot," he said. "It's just a nice rebound right on my tape."
The Capitals have talked about bounces not going their way in the series. That happened again after Jake Guenztel's pass deflected off the skate of Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov and into the net for the Penguins' second goal in their 3-2 win in Game 4 on Wednesday.
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm4: Guentzel's centering feed deflects in
But the bounces usually go the way of those who work to create their chances. Kuznetsov has been doing that in the playoffs this season and is being rewarded.
"It's always nice to get some goals," Kuznetsov said. "We create lots of chances and we can't score. [Saturday] we did and that's all we're focusing on."
Kuznetsov seems to understand his position of importance with the Capitals better now. Trotz has given him a big responsibility against the Penguins by often matching him against Evgeni Malkin, who leads the League with 17 playoff points (four goals, 13 assists), after playing him against impressive Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews in first round.
Kuznetsov has responded to the challenge by elevating his game.
"He's in a place where I think he understands that he is a big part of our team, not only now but going forward," Trotz said. "I think that's a comfort level or a confidence that is given to him by the responsibility and his position on the team in terms of where I use him, the roles that we put him in, and he's leaned on to produce. I think once you get all those responsibilities and you feel comfortable with them and you accept them, then I think you can have growth and that's just the natural progression of a player growing into a bigger role and a bigger responsibility."