Evgeny Kuznetsov played a huge role on special teams Saturday and scored to spark the Capitals' comeback against the Calgary Flames. It did not come on the power play, however, but on the penalty kill.
This was not a case of Kuznetsov jumping on the ice at the tail end of a penalty. He was an active member of Washington's penalty kill and you should expect to see more of that in the future.
"I don't know why you guys think that skill guys can't kill penalties," Kuznetsov said.
“I think he’s good at reading plays," Caps forward Carl Hagelin, a staple of that penalty-kill unit, said, "I think he’s a phenomenal skater so he can obviously get to pucks and he’s been good on the PK so far this year. Fun to watch.”
Down 3-0 in the second period, defenseman John Carlson took a hooking call just two minutes in, putting the Caps on the PK. While shorthanded, Kuznetsov went after Johnny Gaudreau in the offensive zone and managed to steal away the puck to create the breakaway. Kuznetsov then tucked the puck through goalie Dan Vladar and it just barely managed to trickle over the goal line for the unassisted goal.
Those are the kinds of plays a player like Kuznetsov can create on the PK that players like Nic Dowd can't.
"[Kuznetsov's] been really good with his details to defense, and he’s done a good job since being there," Washington head coach Peter Laviolette said. "There’s also that threat where, [if] he does get the chance, he can make something happen.”
It is a growing trend around the NHL to see skilled players used on the penalty kill. Those players provide an offensive threat that players on the power play have to account for, but they also see the game differently. A player like Kuznetsov can see offensive opportunities opening up. That is what coaches like Laviolette want to take advantage of.
“Oftentimes, guys that are really smart offensively, they make good penalty killers as well because they can read what the other powerplays are trying to do with their movement," Laviolette said.
"I think for him it is all about instincts," Hagelin said of Kuznetsov. "I think he’s a guy that he plays his best hockey when he wants to be in charge, he wants to be in control of the game and you can see on the PK he’s been trying to do that.”
Kuznetsov logged 1:31 of shorthanded time, enough to show that he wasn't on the ice by accident but was rather being actively used on the penalty kill.
This strategy comes with a trade-off. Sometimes those skilled players are not as defensively adept as other options. But the threat of a shorthanded kill that can score can be just as powerful a tool as a more defensive forward.
That strategy worked on Saturday with Kuznetsov's goal. That shorthanded score cut Calgary's lead to 3-1 and sparked a rally for Washington that allowed it to at least collect a point in an overtime loss from a game that was very much headed in the wrong direction.
Said Kuznetsov, "It's about believe and trust. If [the coaches] can work with us and teach us, give us the time, we can help play."