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Re-living a special play by a special Capitals rookie

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Re-living a special play by a special Capitals rookie

The tension inside Verizon Center was as thick as Braden Holtby’s playoff beard.

The Capitals were dominating the New York Islanders everywhere but on the scoreboard and the anxiety inside the Phone Booth was palpable.

But with 7:18 separating the Capitals and Islanders from a Game 7 sudden death overtime, Evgeny Kuznetsov did something very few hockey players can do. He won a game by himself.

Parked along the offensive right wing wall, Kuznetsov reversed himself away from Frans Nielsen, beating him by a step toward a wide-open slot. Nielsen desperately dived to slow down Kuznetsov, but missed, leaving the 22-year-old Russian with a split decision to make.

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Should he shoot on Islanders goaltender Jaro Halak? Or, should he take another stride or two and see if he’d get a better look at the net, running the risk that every shooting lane would collapse on him?

“This is my problem,” Kuznetsov explained Monday night after the Caps’ dramatic 2-1 win over the Islanders, “because sometimes I have to shoot but I wait too much time. Bad angle or something like that. But this time it worked.

“I don’t want a bad shot. I just wait, wait and that’s why one more step and I shoot.”

That extra second or two coaxed both Halak and defenseman Johnny Boychuk to go down, leaving an opening in the top right corner of the net.

“I see the room between goalie and the post,” Kuznetsov said. “I see Boychuk go down, that’s why I shoot high.”

The goal was Kuznetsov’s third of the playoffs, tying him with Nicklas Backstrom for the team lead, and his celebration was both witty and comical. After his trade mark windmill/fist pump, Kuznetsov mimicked a jump shot in recognition of the four Wizards -- Rasual Butler, Marcin Gortat, Paul Pierce and John Wall -- who were watching the game from the front row following their first-round sweep of the Toronto Raptors.

“I saw a couple basketball players were at the game and I just kind of thanked them for coming to the game,” Kuznetsov said with a smile. “We’ll try to come to their game, too.”

Thanks to Kuznetsov’s Game 7 heroics, the Caps will be spending their next two weeks traveling to and from New York trying to beat the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup.

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They’ll do so with a confident rookie center who has answered the question of “Who’s going to be the Capitals’ second-line center behind Nicklas Backstrom?”

Kuznetsov’s development this season has been nothing short of phenomenal. In his first year in the NHL under the direction of a new coaching staff, Kuznetsov has evolved from a mistake-prone, fourth-line center who would often get pushed off the puck to a confident, strong-willed force who can use his skills at both ends of the ice.

“A European playing over here in the North American game, it’s takes a little while,” Caps defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It’s different. There’s less space and it’s a little more physical.

“He’s learned the position and he knows when he has time and he can use his skill, and when he’s got to be smart and do the right thing with the puck. I think he’s finally found a good balance.”

At 6-foot, 172 pounds, Niskanen said Kuznetsov is deceptively strong.

“It doesn’t look like he’s that big of a guy, but he’s strong on his skates and he knows how to protect the puck, shielding guys off. He’s really good at finding open ice. He finds a little seam and has the skill to get there. Some guys can see it but can’t get there. He’s got a lot of good tools you look for in a playmaker.”

And because of those skills, the Caps are heading to Manhattan for Round 2. Kuznetsov said his wallet will take a hit in New York.

“My parents are here, a couple friends,” he said. “Probably lots of people coming to New York. I know the tickets are very expensive.”

 

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D.C. artist turns her love for the Washington Capitals into works of art

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@tkopaintings on Twitter

D.C. artist turns her love for the Washington Capitals into works of art

Local artist Taylor Kampa has taken her love for the Washington Capitals and turned it into works of art. 

You can find paintings done by Kampa of Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, John Carlson and Braden Holtby on display at Circa Chinatown – a restaurant neighboring Capital One Arena – along with other D.C. celebrities.

A professional artist for the last decade, Kampa told NHL.com that the pictures were "passion projects," and took about eight hours to finish. She became a fan of the Caps after she began dating her now-husband back in 2009.

Her work has even caught the eye of The Great Eight. After posting a video to Instagram of her painting Ovechkin hoisting the Stanley Cup, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner liked and commented on it. 

"I almost died," Kampa said.

"It has been amazing sharing something that I am excited about that resonates with the people in my city," Kampa said. "I've been painting these portraits for a long time, so it's awesome to have them seen by so many people."

Kampa will also create paintings for the Capitals foundation's annual Casino Night fundraiser next year. 

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Key Caps questions: Who will play center on the fourth line?

Key Caps questions: Who will play center on the fourth line?

The dog days of summer are officially here, but it's never too hot to talk some hockey.

Capitals correspondent JJ Regan is here to help you through the offseason doldrums as he discusses key questions facing the Caps for the upcoming season as Washington prepares to defend its title for the first time in franchise history.

Today's question: Who will be the team's primary fourth line center?

With the departure of Jay Beagle, there is a spot open at center on the fourth line. There appears on the roster to be three clear candidates to fill that position: Chandler Stephenson, Travis Boyd and Nic Dowd.

To find out why you should cross Stephenson’s name off the list, you should read yesterday's Key Caps Question about whether or not Stephenson is a wing or a center. To summarize, Washington sees Stephenson as more of a wing which explains why they both re-signed Boyd and brought in Dowd.

So who will it be between those two?

Both players seem to fit the mold as effective centers in the AHL where they were both productive. Dowd has an edge in NHL experience with 131 NHL games as compared to Boyd’s eight.

But Barry Trotz clearly had faith in Boyd at center which is why we saw him fill in on the top line on March 18 in Philadelphia. Boyd rewarded that faith with a spin pass to Alex Ovechkin for an assist, his first career point.

Trotz is now gone and Todd Reirden is in charge, but there is at least a level of familiarity there with the coaching staff and Boyd, more so than with Dowd who is new to the organization.

Second, the Caps may have tipped their hand a bit when you compare the two contracts. Center is an important position and Brian MacLellan has frequently referenced the team’s strength in center depth as a major reason for their Cup run.

Both Boyd and Dowd were signed over the offseason. Both contracts are one-way, suggesting both will be in the NHL, but Boyd’s cap hit is $800,000 while Dowd’s is $650,000. Of course, that will not matter when the players get on the ice. If Dowd outplays Boyd, he will start over him. Plus, the market ultimately dictates price. Even if the Caps wanted Dowd for their top line, if you can get him for $650k, you sign him for $650k.

Considering how important a position center is, however, even on the fourth line, it seems telling that the team was willing to give Boyd, a player with eight games of experience to his name, $800k while Dowd was signed for the minimum. That seems to suggest the Caps at least foresee Boyd having a bigger role which, for two players penciled in for the fourth line, would mean playing him at center.

Other key Caps questions: