Evgeny Kuznetsov Keeping Defenses Honest


Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov is emerging as a playmaker and game winner in his second full season. 

45 seconds into overtime on Wednesday, Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov accepted a return feed from Matt Niskanen while Detroit’s defense was fixated on Alex Ovechkin. With a little extra space being granted in front of him, Evgeny Kuznetsov reminded fans inside Joe Louis Arena that the Capitals contain more than one scoring threat.

“I checked behind my shoulder and Ovi was yelling at me,” Evgeny Kuznetsov explained, via Monumental Network. “I mean, he wanted the pass and I saw the defenseman come to him and I had a little room. That’s what I tried to do. Just go to the net.”

Just ‘going to the net’ has been working out rather well for the 23-year old in his second full season with the Capitals. Caps fans have seen Evgeny Kuznetsov victimize opposition one-on-one in the KHL. Caps fan are starting to see that same style from Kuznetsov in the NHL because his confidence is blooming under coach Barry Trotz. Having long-time prospects excel and contribute to the degree where they are given top line minutes is exactly the type of success that help teams win the Stanley Cup.

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The Capitals certainly have plenty of work ahead of them. The emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov as a complimentary scoring threat to Ovechkin will continue to keep opposing teams’ defenses honest. Teams obviously know that they need to cover Ovechkin when he’s on the ice. Teams are slowly starting to realize that there’s that other guy who’s dangerous in open space too. If T.J. Oshie can manage to string together a bit more scoring mojo, that’s an intimidating first line on any team.

Kuznetsov seems content to cash in on the extra space he’s being afforded. He pulled the same type of maneuver at the end of October in an overtime affair against the Florida Panthers on Halloween. Again, Ovechkin was looming – stick wound up to receive the one-timer. The defense for the Panthers seemed fixated. Kuznetsov ended that game 2-1 as well.

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As CSN color-analyst Craig Laughlin astutely pointed out, the play is sprung on a savvy drop-pass feint that seem to dismantle the anticipating Panthers’ defense. The defender, Brian Campbell, is too passive in his gap (instead focusing on Ovechkin) and Kuznetsov burns past him in an arc towards the goal. Once in tight with the goaltender, Evgeny utilized the same prowess he’s exhibited in the shootout – where’s he’s gone five of nine (55.6%) so far.

That goal reminds me of another goal where Kuznetsov spun himself into another scoring area. You know the one. He’s shown an incredible amount of patience before shooting the puck for such a relatively inexperienced NHL player. He’s also incredibly strong on the puck throughout each of these goals.

If you squinted last night  you wouldn’t have been blamed for thinking his play resembled returning Detroit center and future Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk. While I’m not suggesting a parallel being drawn between the two, it’s certainly nice to have talent like this on the roster. The ceiling on Kuznetsov looks awfully high.

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The three video clips above ended games that were tooth-and-nail fights through sixty minutes. His ability to individually take over in those scenarios reminds me of former players Joel Ward or Mike Green. If the last several years of playoffs have taught us nothing else: it’s that you can’t ever have enough guys like Evgeny on the roster.

His ability to elude the attention of defenders combined with his open ice skill and ability to hone the destination of his shots should provide Caps’ fans many more nights like this for years to come.

Join me in celebrating the brilliant play of Evgeny Kuznetsov in our comments below. How great does it feel to have multiple savvy scoring threats all over the ice?

Next: Caps Vs. Stars: Game Preview

Evgeny Kuznetsov and company will hope to keep their fortunes rolling and will  have the opportunity to do so tonight as they face off with the incoming Dallas Stars in Verizon Center. Stay tuned to Stars and Sticks for continuing coverage, analysis and more.