“It’s seems like he’s at the top of his game right now,” forward Jason Chimera said.
Together, Chimera, Kuznetsov and forward Troy Brouwer helped produce both Washington goals at Verizon Center despite their lack of experience together. But Kuznetsov has skated 28 straight games at center beside Brouwer, increasingly comfortable with North American hockey, increasingly looking like the 26th-overall pick Washington made him in 2010, like a possession gold mine and professional jaw-dropper.
“Me and Kuzy have been pretty comfortable with each other lately,” Brouwer said. “We’ve been trying to find a spark in the last 10 or 15 games or so and I think tonight was a real good one for us.”
Comfort has been a hot-button issue with Kuznetsov, if only because of the circumstances. The Capitals thrust him into the second-line center battle this summer, a position he hadn’t much played back home in Russia. Then Coach Barry Trotz hoped to “build” a fourth line around Kuznetsov, an experiment that lasted eight games. The language barrier was always – and still is – an adversary, as was the NHL’s physicality and demands of his new spot, such as holding strong along the boards or taking defensive zone draws.
These don’t seem like problems anymore.
“D-zone first and foremost,” Brouwer said, when asked in what areas he’s seen Kuznetsov grow the most. “Beginning of the year, that was partly the reason he was bouncing up and down the lineup. Lately he’s been able to get Trotz’s trust and we get put out for important d-zone faceoffs against important guys sometimes.
“Whenever you can have the coach’s confidence to put you out in all situations, it makes it easier for him to run the bench and it makes it easier for us to play, because we know we can be put out in all situations. With Kuzy starting to really come through with his offensive ability and get himself on the scoresheet, it’s only going to be good things for our line, which means we’re going to get to play more, we’re going to be utilized a little more.”
According to faceoffs.net, Kuznetsov ranks below league average in every draw split – against both hands, home and away, at all strengths – except inside the defensive zone, where he wins 52.2 percent of his attempts. He only secured 4 of 12 against the Ducks, but more than made up for it in the offensive zone, making slick passes to Chimera and defenseman John Carlson that resulted in goals.
Before the game, Trotz posited that Kuznetsov’s acceleration has come from familiarity. He had found that the 22-year-old rookie emerged tentative when facing a team for the first time, then ratcheted up his intensity the second time around. It’s a learning curve Trotz has seen before, especially with “cerebral” players such as Kuznetsov.
“I think with any young player, and I was saying before the game, you start playing more games and your recognize more players and you get to know the league a little bit, and you start to feel comfortable and today he was feeling it,” Trotz said. “He looked really fresh and that puck was on a string with him. That was a really good line for us tonight. They had a lot of zip.”
Brouwer and Chimera played their roles too, on a line only formed because of the trickle-down effect from goaltender Philipp Grubauer’s recall. The former’s miraculous blue-line save flipped a surefire odd-man Anaheim rush into a two-on-zero goal-scoring sequence for Kuznetsov and Chimera. The latter recorded his second multi-point game this season and broke an eight-game scoring drought.
But even the speedy Chimera caught himself watching Kuznetsov sometimes, such as when he split through three Ducks and emerged on the other side with his stick still tapping the puck. Then, in the shootout, where Kuznetsov has become the Capitals’ leadoff batter, he meandered slowly toward goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, looping through the zones then finally attacking down the middle. He hesitated, only for a split second, then surged forward. He saw Bryzgalov’s gaping five-hole and fired there. He was patient, waiting for his moment.
“I think he took 45 seconds to get the hell in there, but it was a hell of a finish,” Chimera told reporters later. “I think he lulled Bryzgalov to sleep before he got in there. It was a pretty sick goal.”
NOTE: Saturday morning, the Capitals completed their minor-league flip-flop, sending goaltender Phiipp Grubauer back to Hershey after his 23-save effort and recalling forward Andre Burakovsky.