“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.”
MORE CAPS NEWS:
- Caps mailbag: Tom Wilson's appeal
- Destined for Greatness: Leonsis always knew Ovi would be special
- Stanley Cup rematch: 5 reasons the Caps won