Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, widely believed to be among the best players in the world, made his season debut on Tuesday against the Capitals. But MacKinnon was overshadowed by Evgeny Kuznetsov who took over the game with two goals and one assist to lead Washington to the 6-3 win.
Kuznetsov looked like a superstar in the Caps' 2018 Cup run, but his inconsistent play since then has left fans and coaches wanting. It even led to trade rumors in the offseason after a dismal 2021 season in which he managed only 29 points in 41 games.
Coming into the 2021-22 season as a major question mark, however, Kuznetsov is answering those questions with his brilliant early play.
“He’s been really good," head coach Peter Laviolette said. "Had a great summer training. Came into camp and was really noticeable all through camp. I remember saying that as camp was going on, really good in the exhibition games and the start of the season was really good for him too.”
Kuznetsov scored in the first period when he took an outlet pass from John Carlson and then skated smoothly right past three Colorado players to create his own breakaway.
It was possession that sparked the second goal, as Kuznetsov finished off a long shift of offensive pressure against Colorado's top line by wheeling around and wristing a shot through traffic to beat goalie Darcy Kuemper.
This was a joint effort by the coaches and the team to recognize the situation. With the fourth line bottling up the top line in the offensive zone, it was a good opportunity for Washington to get in the top line to generate more possession and offense.
"[Kuznetsov] needs the puck and when he has it, he creates a ton," Nic Dowd said.
"For me, it's very important to have the puck and to play with the puck," Kuznetsov said. "If I don't have the puck, I'm trying to go to get that puck."
When a player has the puck as much as Kuznetsov, you have to sometimes take the good with the bad. Early in the game after giving the Caps the 1-0 lead, Kuznetsov gave up a turnover on the power play that J.T. Compher took the other way for the shorthanded goal.
But in that moment, Kuznetsov actually gained confidence by how the team reacted.
"The confidence always goes from the coaches and teammates, right?" Kuznetsov said. "And I feel like I have a great relationship with the coaches and teammates and that always gives you a lot of confidence when you can be creative. That mistake I made on the power play, not even one guy say anything to me because there is a trust. I appreciate it."
Creative players have the puck on their stick constantly. When you have the puck that much, you are going to turn the puck over sometimes. It's a problem when the bad negates the good, but Laviolette knew Kuznetsov was playing well enough that he didn't need a lecture on the bench.
"We know when we make mistakes, and when you come to the bench that's the worst part," Kuznetsov said. "You want to go under the ground. But nobody say anything, and that was huge, you know?"
"We chatted real quick on the bench," Laviolette said. "Turnovers happen and when you are a creative player, those things will happen and he had already had a big impact on the game prior to that and we talked just about maybe something he could have done defensively and at that point, he turned and he said 'I’m going to get that one back.'"
Kuznetsov did just that, scoring in the second period and adding an assist on Alex Ovechkin's empty-netter to seal the game.
That moment of trust shows just how far Kuznetsov and Laviolette have come in their short time together since Laviolette has been behind the bench in Washington. Now it seems player and coach are on the same page and the result speaks for itself.
"There's been ups and downs with Kuzy and I," Laviolette said. "He'll tell you the same thing, but it's always been honest and it's always been direct. The way he's playing right now is a credit to him, just him. He put in the time this summer, he was on the ice all the time, he came to camp in great shape and he started the season the right way."
The question now is can Kuznetsov keep this up?