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Kuznetsov has three assists in Capitals victory

by Adam Vingan

WASHINGTON -- Evgeny Kuznetsov has played three NHL games, and his Washington Capitals teammates have noticed a marked improvement in the forward's overall play as he acclimates himself to the League.

Against the Vancouver Canucks on Friday, Kuznetsov flashed the potential that made his debut so anticipated.

The 21-year-old, 2010 first-round draft pick, who signed with the Capitals last Saturday, had three assists for his first NHL points in a 4-3 win at Verizon Center.

"He's still got that sort of young mentality where you're not afraid to make a play and do these things that you're capable of," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "But there is inexperience. It is, what, his second, third game? I think he's come a long way since even his first two. He's going to be a great player and he's already proving it."

Washington squandered a two-goal, third-period lead but won for the second time in its past seven games (2-4-1). Kunzetsov, who played this season in the Kontinental Hockey League, had an assist on Green's tie-breaking goal with 9:41 remaining.

"[Kuznetsov] did a great job battling down in the corner and keeping control of the puck," Green said. "He made a great play to [Nicklas Backstrom], and I noticed when [Backstrom] was wheeling the net that he saw me before he even looked up. That's just the way [Backstrom] operates, so I just had to freeze the goalie and get a good shot."

Washington (31-27-10) trails the Philadelphia Flyers by one point in the Eastern Conference Stanley Cup Playoff wild-card race.

Vancouver (30-29-10) is 3-12-1 in its past 16 games.

"We played well. We came away empty," Canucks coach John Tortorella said. "No regulation points. It's a frustrating one for us because I thought a lot of people did a lot of good things."

Joel Ward gave the Capitals their first 1-0 lead since March 2 at 8:17. As Washington's third line charged up ice, Jason Chimera sent a centering pass to Eric Fehr in the slot. Fehr's wrist shot went wide but caromed off the end boards right back to him. He chipped the puck toward Ward, who stuffed it past goalie Eddie Lack for his 19th of the season.

Washington killed off its first penalty of the game shortly after Ward's goal, but 35 seconds after Vancouver returned to even strength, Jordan Schroeder tied the game.

As Alex Ovechkin and Jay Beagle pursued a loose puck, they collided, freeing space in the middle of the ice. Sensing the opening, Schroeder rolled into the slot, received a backhand pass from forward Zack Kassian, and snapped his third goal of the season over Jaroslav Halak's catching glove at 11:41.

Ovechkin restored the Capitals' lead at 8:28 of the second period, ripping a one-timer past Lack on the power play from his customary position inside the left circle. It was Ovechkin's 45th goal of the season and 19th on the power play; each lead the NHL. It snapped a four-game pointless drought, tied for his longest of the season.

Kuznetsov, who had the secondary assist on Ovechkin's goal, picked up his second assist at 12:35, threading an impressive cross-ice slap pass to a hard-charging Tom Wilson, who roofed it for his third goal of the season.

Kuznetsov is the first rookie to have at least three assists in one of his first three NHL games since Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar on Oct. 7, 2006, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

"[Kuznetsov] is such a creative player, a lot of fun to play with," Wilson said. "The first couple of games he wasn't sure, and he's really finding his groove. … [Beagle's] going through the middle on that goal that I scored. He started it, drove through the middle, opened that space up for me, and [Kuznetsov] made a great pass. It's really fun to have a little bit of skill, a lot of hard work, and it's been fun."

Trailing 3-1 early in the third period, Vancouver's Shawn Matthias scored at 4:28, his first goal with the Canucks after being acquired from the Florida Panthers last week. Matthias trailed his teammates into the zone and found plenty of open ice following a cross-ice pass from Chris Higgins to beat Halak.

Nicklas Jensen scored his first NHL goal 3:06 later to tie the game. The Capitals failed to clear the zone and the Canucks worked the puck until Higgins found Jensen wide open in the high slot.

It was the 12th time this season the Capitals blew a two-goal lead.

"One of the good things was, in the last five minutes, we did a pretty decent job protecting the goalie, blocked some shots, guys stayed in position," Capitals coach Adam Oates said. "You know they rallied, but we didn't ice it. We protected it."

Halak made 38 saves in his fourth straight start. Lack stopped 17 shots.

The Capitals host the Toronto Maple Leafs on Sunday, when the Canucks visit the Panthers.

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