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Stanley Cup Final

Kuznetsov's comfort level helps put Capitals on cusp of Stanley Cup

Forward's emergence as scorer, locker room jokester proves winning combination for Washington, one win from first title

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Sometimes it gets, how to put this, a wee bit irritating. 

There are center Evgeny Kuznetsov and defenseman Dmitry Orlov, on the Washington Capitals bus or on the plane, sitting next to each other and howling with laughter. Or maybe, as it sometimes goes, it's just Orlov howling, Kuznetsov the cause. 

 

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There is defenseman Brooks Orpik, often in the seat in front of them, hoping for silence. 

"It almost gets annoying at times," Orpik said, a hint of a smile on his face. "Sometimes you just want peace and quiet and they just start nonstop laughing."

He's out of luck. It's partially his own fault.

Kuznetsov was almost immediately comfortable in the company of Orlov, with whom he'd played on Russia's World Juniors rosters. Orpik fashioned himself as a North American ambassador for Kuznetsov back in 2014-15, when they became teammates in the rookie's first full NHL season.

Kuznetsov was selected by the Capitals with the No. 26 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, but played in the Kontinental Hockey League until joining Washington in March 2013. 

Orpik, newly arrived in Washington himself after signing a five-year contract in July 1, 2014, was determined to help the young Russian become comfortable in a foreign environment, even with a pronounced language barrier.

There were barbecues and invitations to dinner, at home and on the road. There were Washington Wizards games and playdates with their two young daughters, who are about the same age. There were chats sitting at their adjacent locker stalls and a friendly "How was your night?" when Kuznetsov came in in the morning. 

"He really wanted to learn English, he really wanted to learn the culture," Orpik said. "So there was that side of it that makes you want to help him out."

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But that wasn't all. Orpik, at the time a 10-year NHL veteran, had seen it before, with new players coming in, recognizing the necessity of finding a place for them, of making them feel like they belonged. 

"You just realize the importance of trying to make those guys comfortable off the ice," he said. "Usually that has a direct correlation to how they perform on the ice. Especially a guy that is new to the culture and stuff, it's even more paramount."

And it's that comfort, that sense of belonging, that has allowed Kuznetsov, 26, to be the player the Capitals have needed in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. Kuznetsov leads all postseason scorers with 31 points (12 goals, 19 assists), after a four-assist performance in a 6-2 win in Game 4 on Monday that strengthened his case for the Conn Smythe Trophy, awarded to MVP of the playoffs, and pushed his Capitals to the brink of their first Stanley Cup. 

Washington leads the Vegas Golden Knights 3-1 in the best-of-7 series with Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).

It is also that comfort that has allowed Kuznetsov, 26, to be the person that he is, a goofy, funny, personable, likeable guy unafraid to make his teammates laugh -- or to celebrate a goal with a wing-flapping, bird-like dance.

Without it?

"It's impossible, I think," said Kuznetsov, who had never learned English in school, but was told when he came to the Capitals that he would need to learn. "When you don't feel comfortable off the ice and you have some problems or miscommunication with the guys on the team, it's always hard. Sometimes it takes one game for some players, sometimes it takes 100 games. 

"When you understand everything, when you know every player with who you play, that gives you [an] extra second and extra seconds [are] everything right now."

It's the difference between playing at this time of year and going home. 

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"You look at him now, he's real comfortable," said Orpik, 37. "He had everybody over the other day for his daughter's birthday party and he's very North American-ized now. I think as he's gotten more comfortable, his game has gotten better and better. I think that's a direct reflection."

This, now, is the player Orlov thought Kuznetsov could be, back long ago, back when the two were young and unformed. Kuznetsov was thinner then, a rail of a player who needed to fill out and find a way to use the creativity and talent he so clearly possessed. Now, as Orlov said, "His skating ability is unbelievable, best in the NHL. You never know where … he can be."

"I think he's a guy that's got so much talent," said Capitals forward Brett Connolly, who played against Kuznetsov in the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo. "I've seen it firsthand in big moments. He's got this, not arrogance, to him, but I think he knows he's a really good player. When he's on the ice he thinks he's better than anybody on the other team."

Now he's able to show it. 

This season was Kuznetsov's best in the NHL, with 83 points (27 goals, 56 assists) in a campaign that has landed him here, one win away from the first Stanley Cup in Washington fhistory, good enough where linemate Tom Wilson can say, "It's a privilege to play with him."

It was what he -- and the Capitals -- have been waiting so long for, and somewhere they wouldn't be without Kuznetsov, without the place he has 
found within his team and with his teammates. 

"It's a special day," Kuznetsov said before the Final started. "Special moment for sure for us. Some players play so many years and never have a chance to play in the Final. That's a huge privilege for me personally, and I believe you may have the one chance in your life. And soon as you're going to have that chance, you have to take it."

Kuznetsov has taken it. He has run with it. He has integrated himself into the Capitals on the ice and off, has found a space of comfort and belonging, most of all. And with that, he has become exactly who he is. 

"Even with the language barrier, he would always have really funny one-liners," Orpik said, "sometimes even funnier because they would be like one word off or something. He has a great ability to laugh at himself, so even when he would make a mistake, he was probably the one laughing the hardest."

As Kuznetsov said, "When I get better with the language it gets more easy for me to make a joke, to handle the jokes and for me it's all about confidence, to have that feeling, positive emotion off the ice. When you feel comfortable off the ice, you can feel more comfortable on the ice." 

And right now, he couldn't look more comfortable.

***

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