Capitals’ Stanley Cup Hopes Get Boost From Kuznetsov’s Resurgence

While Alex Ovechkin won the Conn Smythe Trophy in the Washington Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup playoff run, and Braden Holtby posterized Alex Tuch with “The Save” – both events are preserved forever in the minds of Washington fans – the team would likely have not gotten to the title without the strong play of Evgeny Kuznetsov that spring.

During Washington’s 2018 playoff run, Kuznetsov recorded 12 goals and 20 assists in 24 games to lead all playoff participants in points, and two of his dozen goals ended up being game winners.

None of his dozen tallies he recorded that spring could eclipse the second-round series-winning goal on the road in overtime of Game 6, and now stands as biggest markers in franchise history. His breakaway goal on Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray allowed the Capitals to win their first playoff series against the Pens for the first time since 1994.

Kuznetsov’s other game-winning goal also came on a big stage, as he recorded the winner in Game 3, and it was Washington’s first-ever Stanley Cup Final win at home, as well as the first Final game on home ice since 1998. That gave the Capitals a series lead they never relinquished against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Kuznetsov finished second in the Conn Smythe voting, earning five first-place votes out of 18 of the total ballots, including a top two spot an all of them. And while Ovechkin was a sentimental choice for the playoff MVP during the team’s first-ever Stanley Cup win, Kuznetov was perhaps the best player on the ice for Washington that spring.

Post-Celebration Letdown

However, since lifting the Cup on that June night in the heat of Las Vegas, the Capitals haven’t seen a lot of that dominant Kuznetsov performance since. His best regular season after the celebrations ended was just a 21-goal performance in 2018-19. As the Capitals haven’t won a playoff series since 2018 with three first-round exits, he has scored a grand total of four playoff goals in the 18 playoff games in three seasons since – one of which came in the round-robin portion of the Toronto bubble.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Following his strong 2018 playoffs, Kuznetsov hasn’t lived up to his potential again until this season. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Off the ice, Kuznetsov also got himself into trouble after an unflattering video surfaced a year later during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. A few months later in August, he received a ban from international play, as the IIHF for handed down a four-year suspension for testing positive for cocaine.

His play suffered after the suspension, as he scored 19 goals in the 2019-20 regular season and then plummeted to just nine in 2020-21 – in part thanks to testing positive twice for COVID-19 in the regular season. With his on-ice lackluster play, Kuznetsov seemed to be ticketed out of town over the summer, either via the expansion route or via trade, but with four years left on his contract carrying a $7.8 million cap hit, it made him difficult to move, and Capitals’ GM Brian MacLellan opted to keep him instead of exposing him to the Seattle Kraken or dealing him.

Related: Washington Capitals’ Trade Deadline History

Instead of sliding out of relevance in Washington this fall, however, Kuznetsov has had a renaissance this season, and came back to the United States with a renewed purpose. While he didn’t get a chance to compete in the Olympics – while his IIHF suspension was reportedly going to be lifted, the NHL backed out of the competition – his solid play was rewarded with his second appearance in the All-Star Game, and he didn’t disappoint during Saturday’s games and even left an impression on a rival’s coach.

Spark Plug for the Metropolitan Team

Kuznetsov didn’t make the initial roster for the All-Stars, and wasn’t selected by the fans as the “Last Man In” for the Metropolitan Division, originally leaving Ovechkin the lone Cap scheduled to be heading to Vegas. However, was added when the New York Rangers’ Adam Fox had to bow out due to injury, later to be joined by Tom Wilson, who replaced Ovechkin after the Washington captain had to miss the contest due to a positive COVID test.

With Ovechkin at home in quarantine, Kuznestov’s image was the one on one of the oversized pucks placed in Toshiba Plaza outside T-Mobile Arena during this weekend’s festivities. And, he also showed his oversized talent and personality inside.

Evgeny Kuznetsov Washington Capitals
Kuznetsov notched a goal and an assist in both games, both coming in the first minute of each. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

On Saturday in the Metropolitan Division’s first game against the Pacific Division, Kuznetsov set up Wilson just 13 seconds into the game, which ended up to be a 6-4 win. In the final, he scored himself 27 seconds in the game against the Central Division, giving the Metro a lead it wouldn’t relinquish en route to a 5-3 win and a $1,000,000 prize for the team.

While the Philadelphia Flyers’ Claude Giroux took home the car as the game’s MVP, Metro coach Rod Brind’Amour said Kuznetsov really helped the team get started quickly in both games.

“The guy that kinda shocked me the most was Kuznetsov,” Brind’Amour said, according to ESPN. “He’s a happy-go-lucky guy. But he said he was going to go out and score on the first shift, and he did. And then the next game, he did. I was like, ‘This is pretty impressive to call your own shot.’ But he worked hard. He was chirping on the guys. They wanted to win.”

Certainly, Kuznetsov in the past has shown how he is capable of taking over games with his skill, and in recent years, hadn’t quite shown it. But this year has been different, and showed to a national audience he still has the ability to control the game.

Bounce-Back Season for Kuznetsov

This season, he seems to have rediscovered his drive and hustle, and has been part of the reason the Capitals haven’t fallen off the proverbial cliff in the standings despite being ravaged with injuries and positive tests this season.

Despite the consistently shifting Washington lineup, Kuznetsov has scored 14 goals and 31 assists this season, second on the team in points only to Ovechkin, and in the Top 25 in the points department league-wide.

Capitals head coach Peter Laviolette told a local radio station last week that Kuznetsov is one of the reasons the Caps are sitting comfortably in a playoff spot rather than looking up in the standings from the outside.

“Ovi’s having a year, but I think, in order for him to have a year, you have to have a centerman that’s also playing really well, somebody who can distribute the puck and play at a high level and with speed.” Laviolette said on 106.7 The Fan, per NoVa Caps. “Kuzy, from the start, has been a big reason why we sit where we sit, based on the turmoil that we’ve had with the lineup, with regard to injuries and guys missing and long-term injuries.”

Another aspect of Kuznetsov’s game which is apparent is the fun he seems having playing the game. Surrounded by trade rumors in recent years due to disappointing play, his strong performance has dissipated such talk and he seems to be enjoying the game again.

Even when he doesn’t succeed, he is able to smile. Despite finishing dead last in Friday night’s fastest skater competition, he threw up his hands in the air in a mock celebration on his way back to the bench, causing laughter from his fellow All-Stars.

“No matter what happens, no matter who is around you, you have to impact the people with your smile,” Kuznetsov told the Washington Post (from ‘Evgeny Kuznetsov is the Caps’ all-smiles all-star’, The Washington Post, 2/5/22). “I feel like if you smile and you enjoy the life, then you are going to affect the people that are around you, and there are always going to be lots of smiles around you.”

So while Kuznetsov quietly put on a show in the spotlight four years ago in the playoffs, he showed on a national stage Saturday afternoon that he is still capable of propelling his team to on-ice success. And while he has been perhaps one of the most improved Capitals this season, it also shows if he brings this type of compete level to the postseason, it certainly makes Washington a much more tough team to play against.

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