Two days after he arrived in North America, Evgeny Kuznetsov made his highly-anticipated NHL debut Monday night as the Capitals lost 3-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins. It was a rather uneventful performance for the 21-year-old but one that offered glimpses of why the Capitals have been so eager to work him into the fold.
Kuznetsov recorded two shots on goal in his 10 minutes 22 seconds of ice time, but didn’t take a shift in the final 8:35 of regulation as Washington tried to tie the game.
“I was a little bit worried the first time I stepped on the ice, but with each shift I got better and better,” Kuznetsov said as translated by Dmitry Chesnokov of Yahoo Sports. “I understood what I needed to do and how I needed to play…This is my first game, but a lot of players have told me that it’s just like the Russian rivalries. [They are] just like that ones we have in Russia, so I know what it’s like.”
Kuznetsov started on the fourth line with Jay Beagle and Tom Wilson as expected with Coach Adam Oates’s approach to ease the young forward into the NHL game.
But even though that’s where he saw the majority of his ice time, Kuznetsov did take a few shifts on the top unit with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom when Oates decided to rest Brooks Laich and search for a bit of an offensive spark. Kuznetsov also saw 1:10 on the power play, serving as the low man down along the goal line on the second unit.
There were moments where Kuznetsov looked tentative, especially in the defensive zone, surveying the play before he made a decision on where to go which isn’t unexpected given that he’s yet to work through a full practice with the Capitals and the NHL is a new style of play for him.
He’s “trying to understand how to play within our system,” Oates said. “It’s total opposite to where he’s been and trying to figure out where to go in certain situations. I think the North American hockey is so much more structured play by play than [the Russian style].”
There were also instances, though, where Kuznetsov showed his deft skating ability and confidence with the puck as he weaved through the neutral zone.
“I thought he did great,” Oates said. “I think we have to be patient and be realistic about expectations because it’s a foreign league for him. It’s a foreign system. He’s never played this way. He’s never played in front of this many people, really. So for me, I want to ease him in. Use him as much as possible but also be fair to him and give him a chance to grow with the team and within.”