Three games watching from a suite high above the ice was more than enough for Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov.
It took less than five minutes for Kuznetsov to rip a backhand shot past Dallas goalie Ben Bishop in a 4-3 overtime loss Tuesday night. A three-game suspension for what the NHL deemed detrimental behavior this summer – essentially lying about his cocaine use after failing a drug test at the World Championships in May – was finally over. Kuznetsov could get back to what he does best.
“He’s good at that,” defenseman John Carlson said with a knowing smile. “He likes the theatrics.”
Not that he was too impressed. Kuznetsov admitted it felt good to score, but goals aren’t the point to him. Never have been. We know that by now. He almost rolled his eyes when asked about the shot that gave Washington a 1-0 lead at 4:49 of the first period. It was a beauty. The loss took some of the starch out of it, though.
“You know I never care about goals. I’d rather win and be happy tomorrow than that goal,” Kuznetsov said. “But it’s kind of nice. I’m not going to lie. It’s nice to score right away – especially for me. I never focus on that, but I knew I had to respond right away.”
It wasn’t a perfect return. Kuznetsov took an interference penalty at 16:07 of the third period with the Capitals down 3-2, but on the power play. He was also on the ice when Nicklas Backstrom tied the game with the goalie pulled for a 6-on-5 advantage and 31 seconds to go.
Yet he and fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Dmitry Orlov also got scored on in overtime after a turnover in the offensive zone led to Tyler Seguin’s game-winner at the other end. The power play, back at full strength with Kuznetsov on the ice, also went 0-for-5. That contributed to the loss, too.
But in the end, it was just good to have Kuznetsov back. He will have to earn the trust of his teammates and coaches again. Kuznetsov played on the third line with Richard Panik and Carl Hagelin – not his usual spot centering the first or second line. It could take a bit before he makes it back up there full time, according to coach Todd Reirden.
“It's been a while since he's played and it was important we put him in a situation where he needs to earn that opportunity to move up the lineup,” Reirden said. “Obviously, early on converts for us. I moved around some of the combinations as the game went on and I'll continue to work through those to find something that gives us the best chance to have success. That's something that's going to be a little bit of a moving target to find the right thing.”
It’s still early in the season, but Reirden knows what he has in Kuznetsov. The Capitals have seen him plenty alongside Ovechkin and Tom Wilson or Jakub Vrana and T.J. Oshie over the years. They can move him up at any time. But coming off that suspension, Kuznetsov will have to get there with his play and not his reputation.
“It’s good to have him. One of our mainstays on this team,” Carlson said. “He can do a number of amazing things and you saw it tonight. He’s a big part of our team and we’ll be leaning on him a lot.”
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