Evgeny Kuznetsov’s Season at Turning Point

The Washington Capitals are one of the hottest teams in the NHL as they are on a 12-game point streak. The Capitals have looked extremely good this season, and appear poised to make another run at a title come this Spring. In order for Washington to have a legitimate chance to win a second championship, they are going to need Evgeny Kuznetsov to step it up. Saturday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights may have sparked something for the Russian forward’s season. Monday further confirmed that notion as he scored a pair of goals in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Arizona Coyotes. While his performance was great Monday night, I want to focus in on what might have been the turning point for him which was Saturday’s contest.

Kuznetsov Ends Goal Drought

Within the opening minute of play, Dmitry Orlov sent a nifty pass towards Evgeny Kuznetsov up the middle of the ice. Kuznetsov accepted the pass with ease and came flying in on the right-wing to beat Vegas’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury on a mini breakaway just 58 seconds into the first period.

Washington Capitals Evgeny Kuznetsov
Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov (AP Photo/Nick Wass, File)

It definitely must have been a relief for Capitals fans alike to finally see Kuznetsov bury his first goal in the previous five games played. The last time he scored came against the Vancouver Canucks, which was nearly a week before Halloween! Hopefully, this goal can get him going and make the Capitals an even more formidable foe to deal with as we dive deeper into November and beyond.

Kuznetsov has been having a bit of a rough season thus far in 2019. At this very moment, the seven-year Russian forward has only produced six goals in 15 games played. The one bright side is it’s still early for him to turn this season around. There’s plenty of hockey remaining and he is surrounded by a bevy of talent to help him become a more productive member of an already potent offense.

Could Kuznetsov Have Finally Turned the Corner?

Saturday’s performance against the Golden Knights may have possibly been the turning point for Kuznetsov’s season. Aside from the early game goal he scored to give Washington a 1-0 lead over Vegas, Kuznetsov also contributed with a secondary assist on Nicklas Backstrom’s power-play goal 11:30 into the third period. This was just his fifth power-play point of the season and it came at a very opportune time for the Capitals. Washington was hanging on to a 3-2 lead when they went on the power play in the third period and somebody needed to step up and make a play.

The Capitals sent out their top power-play unit which consisted of Kuznetsov, Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie up front, with Alex Ovechkin, and John Carlson on the back-end. The first half of Washington’s man-advantage evaporated without much of anything to speak of. Fans may have begun to worry at this point that the Capitals would squander away a golden opportunity at a very crucial juncture of the game.

Then finally the play happened. Kuznetsov got a hold of the puck in the neutral zone and skated it up towards the Golden Knights’ end of the rink. He quickly rushed up the ice and sent a pass over to Backstrom. From there, Backstrom crossed the Vegas blue line and sent it over to Carlson, who threw it back to Backstrom. It was at this point that Backstrom found a hole in the defensive shell and ripped a shot from the right faceoff circle towards the Vegas net. Fleury tried to squeeze the puck between his arm and body, but it trickled past him into the gaping open net.

Washington Capitals Evgeny Kuznetsov
Washington Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov (AP Photo/Nick Wass)

The whole crowd went berserk as the Capitals doubled their lead yet again with 8:30 remaining in the game. This was all started by Kuznetsov who helped his teammate Backstrom to enter the offensive zone. While those types of plays tend to go unnoticed in the heat of the moment of games, it is still a vitally important element to the outcome of any contest.

It’s the little things that count, not just the flashy accomplishments like a goal or big defensive save. Forechecking, blocked shots, puck movement, and hockey sense are all critical in the success of a team at any level in this sport. Kuznetsov displayed his hockey sense there and it will not go unrecognized by the coaching staff moving forward. While this is all well and good, Kuznetsov also made a mistake that could have been extremely costly had the Capitals lost to Vegas Saturday.

There Is Still Hope Kuznetsov Will Improve

Back in the first period, the Golden Knights found themselves down in an early 2-0 hole and were looking for any kind of spark to get them back into the game. They found some life as they scored a goal about three minutes after Washington’s second to cut their lead in half at 2-1. Vegas’ goal-scoring culprit was Max Pacioretty who snapped a shot home right off a faceoff scrum involving Kuznetsov and Paul Stastny. Kuznetsov, unfortunately, lost the battle to Stastny, which resulted in a loose puck out on the front doorstep of Braden Holtby. Pacioretty just found the puck like a dead duck and took care of business for Vegas.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals
Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals 2016 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Kuznetsov needs to get stronger in faceoff situations to be a really effective forward in this league. The last thing an offensive player wants is to get bullied off of pucks and costing their team chances to win. Luckily, his mistake was quickly forgiven as he redeemed himself with that secondary assist on the power-play two periods later. It’s good to see him showed some resilience and did not let his first-period mistake on that particular faceoff negatively impact his game Saturday. He will need to continue to display that same type of mental toughness time and time again. In order for him to break out, that is one of the first things he must continue to employ.

Kuznetsov has shown fans flashes of his offensive brilliance throughout the seven years he has played in the NHL. I am hopeful that Saturday’s performance against the Golden Knights will be the spark that he needs to get back on track this season and become a much more consistent goal scorer.

The Capitals already possess a powerful offense to begin with, so just imagine how much more dangerous they can be if Kuznetsov can become consistent with his goal-scoring production. It will definitely be interesting to see how he performs moving forward from here. Will he continue to play as he did on Saturday or will he revert to the form he was in before? Only time will tell, but I’m taking the more optimistic approach and expect him to impress everyone once again.