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.
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.
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.”