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Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov has officially gone from a very good player to a superstar

Capitals' Evgeny Kuznetsov has officially gone from a very good player to a superstar

“It just looks like he’s dancing out there,” Nicklas Backstrom said of teammate Evgeny Kuznetsov

“He was feeling it tonight, obviously,” Alex Ovechkin said. “It's fun to watch. It's fun to be on the ice when he play like that.”

On Wednesday, the Caps beat the Vegas Golden Knights 5-2 in a Stanley Cup Final rematch and Ovechkin scored two goals to pass Bobby Hull for sole possession of 17th place on the NHL’s all-time goals list. Yet all of that was overshadowed by the brilliant performance of Kuznetsov.

Kuznetsov had a hand in each of the Caps’ first four goals on the night with one goal and three assists. Including the playoffs, it was the eighth four-point night of Kuznetsov’s career.

The young center seems to have picked up right where he left off in the spring when he tallied 32 points in 24 playoff games, numbers that most years would get you a Conn Smythe Trophy.

Now with seven points in his first three games, it appears Kuznetsov has carried over that playoff performance into the new season.

Kuznetsov did it all on Wednesday. He was brilliant on the power play as he read the penalty kill perfectly allowing him to get in position for a tip-in from Nicklas Backstrom right in front of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and behind the defense. He returned the favor to Backstrom on the power play later in the game with a beautiful pass of his own.

Kuznetsov also showed his elite skating ability. On a two-on-one with Ovechkin in the second period, Kuznetsov absolutely skated defenseman Colin Miller out of his skates. Kuznetsov cut to the inside then effortlessly put on the brakes and glided back out. Miller stayed with Kuznetsov to the inside, but couldn’t stay with him as he cut back out and Miller wiped out in the middle of the ice giving Kuznetsov plenty of room to set up Ovechkin for the one-timer.

It was the type of performance that felt was fun to play in as it was to watch.

“It's just about have fun every night you go out there,” Kuznetsov said after the game. “If you don't have fun and you don't want to enjoy, you don't want to play hockey, you should be retired.”

For all the offensive skill Kuznetsov showed, it was a defensive play that really caught the eye of his head coach.

“The one thing that's most exciting for me about his game was when he had to take the face-off shorthanded, at the end of the shorthanded shift before they score,” Todd Reirden said. “He takes that, [Nic Dowd] gets kicked out and he has to go in and take that draw and he wins that draw on his off side. … To me, he's always had this obviously great ability to make offensive plays, but that was one right there where I put him out in that situation on the PK to potentially win a draw, he has to win the draw, still a close game at that point, and he does.”

The face-off circle was about the only area in which Kuznetsov did not dominate on Wednesday, as he won only eight of the 17 draws he took, but, as Reirden pointed out, he won when it really mattered.

The early season has shown already how well-rounded Kuznetsov is becoming as a player, but he is doing it while remaining an elite offensive talent. The longer Kuznetsov continues to play at that elite level, the more the league will start to take notice and finally give him the recognition he deserves as one of the top players.

“I think he's up there with the all-around top five players in the league,” T.J. Oshie said.”I don't know. He just doesn't get the recognition for some reason, but you come watch a game, there are certain players that get people out of their seats and it's a joy to watch.”

Said Reirden, “He's a difference maker and we're very fortunate to have a player like that.”

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With a chance to extend Maple Leafs' losing streak, Caps look for a measure of retribution

With a chance to extend Maple Leafs' losing streak, Caps look for a measure of retribution

The low point of the Capitals’ season came on Jan. 23. That night, the Toronto Maple Leafs handed Washington a 6-3 defeat to send them into the All-Star break with seven straight losses.

When it comes to players that Caps fans consider to be villains, most of those players reside in the Metropolitan Division. Nazem Kadri, however, is an exception.

Kadri always plays Washington tough, but he earned the ire of Caps fans in 2017 when the two teams met in the playoffs. Kadri delivered a hit to the knee of Alex Ovechkin causing an injury that hampered Ovechkin for the remainder of the postseason.

So it really stung when Kadri delivered a hat trick performance to finish off the Caps in January.

Kadri suffered a concussion in Toronto’s game on Tuesday and is unlikely to play Thursday when the Caps visit the Maple Leafs (7 p.m., NBC Sports Washington), but even if he does not play, it still will feel just as sweet for Washington and their faithful to deliver Toronto their third straight loss just one month after the Leafs delivered the Caps with their seventh.

CAPITALS vs. MAPLE LEAFS GAME NOTES

All Hands on Deck

The Caps have had two extra forwards for the majority of the season, but with Devante Smith-Pelly clearing waivers, the Caps are down a spare. That spare appears to be Dmitrij Jaskin who was on the ice for morning skate despite rumors that he could be traded.

That leaves Washington with a fourth line of Chandler Stephenson, Nic Dowd and Travis Boyd.

The only other lineup change for the Caps from Monday’s game is that Braden Holtby will get the start.

Swing Game?

The Caps are 2-2-0 through four games of their six-game road trip. A win Thursday will guarantee at least six out of a possible 12 points and the possibility of getting eight on Saturday in Buffalo. A loss on Thursday, however, and Washington will have to win Saturday just to salvage a .500 record for the trip.

Watching the Standings

The New York Islanders suffered a regulation loss on Wednesday which will give the Caps a chance to gain some ground. Washington trails the Islanders by just three points in the standings, though New York has a game in hand.

The Caps also need the points to keep some distance between them and the Pittsburgh Penguins who sit two points behind Washington.

Both the Islanders and Penguins will be in action on Thursday as well.

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What’s next for Devante Smith-Pelly after clearing waivers?

What’s next for Devante Smith-Pelly after clearing waivers?

 When the Capitals placed Devante Smith-Pelly on waivers Wednesday, it felt like his time in Washington would soon be at an end. Now it seems that may not be the case.

Smith-Pelly cleared waivers on Thursday meaning no team put in a claim for him and his contract still remains with the Caps. He will be reassigned to the Hershey Bears, Washington’s AHL affiliate, a team official confirmed to NBC Sports Washington.

How long he stays there will largely depend on what the Caps do in the coming days before the trade deadline.

When a player clears waivers and is reassigned to the AHL, he does not need to clear waivers again to be recalled. Thus, the Caps could recall Smith-Pelly at any time provided he fits under the roster limits and salary cap.

The addition of Carl Hagelin puts Washington at the 23-player maximum making this not an option until after the deadline unless the Caps free up another roster spot. Washington is also very tight against the salary cap ceiling and it may take some maneuvering by the team in order to fit Smith-Pelly under the cap.

Smith-Pelly was among the playoff heroes for the Caps last season with seven goals in 24 playoff games. If Washington cannot fit him on the roster during the season, it is almost certain he will be recalled for the playoffs.

Whether he will be expected to take on a significant role, however, seems doubtful after he was waived and with Hagelin now in the fold.

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