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Hurricanes’ Evgeny Kuznetsov gets a standing ovation in his return to Washington

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Washington Capitals

Mar 22, 2024; Washington, District of Columbia, USA; Carolina Hurricanes center Evgeny Kuznetsov (92) looks on from the ice during a stoppage in play in the second period against the Washington Capitals at Capital One Arena. Mandatory Credit: Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON (AP) — Evgeny Kuznetsov’s return to the nation’s capital started with a friendly trip and featured a standing ovation during an emotional video tribute to one of the Washington Capitals’ biggest stars of the past decade.

Former teammate Alex Ovechkin stuck a leg out and playfully tripped Kuznetsov after a whistle very early his first game back to his old home arena with the Carolina Hurricanes, a wild 7-6 win by the Capitals in a shootout. While he said he kept his head down rather than look at the video screens, Kuznetsov definitely heard the cheers and “Kuuuuuz!” chants and waved at the crowd to acknowledge the love.

“It means the world for any player,” Kuznetsov said. “I want to say thanks for all the good and bad memories. It was an amazing atmosphere. I spent a lot of years here, so it was all happy today.”

Kuznetsov was the leading scorer on Washington’s 2018 Stanley Cup run, the highlight of his decade-long stint as one of the team’s core players. His tumultuous tenure ended by going into the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program and getting put on waivers and sent to Hershey of the American Hockey League before ultimately being traded to Carolina on deadline day two weeks ago.

“It was an amazing 11 years,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s nice to be back here, play hockey. I wish them all the best. They got a pretty good team, and it’s all positive.”

After playing 810 regular-season and playoff games for the Capitals since they drafted him in the first round in 2010, the Chelyabinsk, Russia, native put up five points in his first eight with Carolina.

“Everything he’s done since coming to us has been great,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “I think he’s been very appreciative of how everything has kind of transpired. The past is kind of the past, and we’re trying to make sure we’re focusing on just a day at a time and making him try to feel as comfortable as possible.”

The Hurricanes have lost just twice in 10 games since acquiring Kuznetsov and Jake Guentzel prior to the trade deadline. Guentzel, who has his own return to Pittsburgh upcoming, enjoyed watching his longtime rival turned teammate be celebrated in Washington.

“It’s special just to see what he’s done for this city,” Guentzel said. “He’s been obviously a high-end player, so it’s really cool to see when the fans get behind him like that.”