TAMPA — As Alex Ovechkin has roared into NHL history, becoming the first player in 100 years to record back-to-back hat tricks in the first two games of the season, center Evgeny Kuznetsov quietly has been the driving force behind that blistering production. Through just two games, he and Ovechkin are tied for the league lead in points — Ovechkin with seven goals and Kuznetsov with an assist on every one of them.
“When guy like Ovi hot, you’ve got to use him,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s kind of No. 1 priority.”
Seems simple enough, but for the past decade, Ovechkin has played almost exclusively next to center Nicklas Backstrom. Coach Barry Trotz decided to split the iconic duo to start the season; he paired Backstrom and T.J. Oshie on a line, then moved Ovechkin beside Kuznetsov. Trotz’s intent was to make Washington a more challenging matchup by keeping a team’s top defensive pair from playing against both Backstrom and Ovechkin for the entire game.
Trotz probably didn’t imagine the change going this well to start the season. While Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and 21-year-old Jakub Vrana combined for 15 points at even strength in the first two games, Backstrom has anchored a shutdown line with Oshie and Andre Burakovsky, the three responsible for playing against opponents’ top trios.
Considering Trotz’s tendency for tinkering, it’s likely the top-six forward corps will get shuffled at some point. But with Kuznetsov now in his fourth year in the NHL, this could be the start of his transition to centering Ovechkin most often.
“He’s a No. 1 center on half the teams around the league,” General Manager Brian MacLellan said last week. “We have two No. 1 centers, in my mind.”
Kuznetsov signed a massive eight-year, $62.4 million extension this summer that carries an annual cap hit of $7.8 million. MacLellan acknowledged the Capitals spent slightly more than they wanted to keep him, but Kuznetsov had the leverage of going to play in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League for two years and then coming back to the NHL as an unrestricted free agent. On the first day of training camp, Kuznetsov said he seriously considered the KHL because it would’ve given him the opportunity to represent Russia in the Olympics.
“I missed the first Olympic Games in Sochi because I didn’t make the team,” Kuznetsov said. “So, it’s kind of in my head, what should I do? But I think every player should have a chance to decide where he wants to play. He have to sit and think about it. That’s smart. I make my decision, and I’m happy for that to be here. I hope I’m going to play here a long time.”
The Capitals are betting on that, too. As MacLellan so candidly put it, “If he’s good, I’m good. If he’s not, it was nice meeting you guys.”
Six primary assists in two games seems pretty good.
“Whatever they’re doing, it’s great,” Trotz said after Washington’s 6-1 win against Montreal on Saturday.
“We’re just trying to play for each other and we’re trying to execute our plan before the game,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s very important when you execute every play. It’s very tough to play right now without puck, you know? When we have the puck and three forwards are moving and two [defensemen] are moving, it’s very tough to defend. That’s No. 1. Don’t waste your shot, just don’t shoot it right away. Save the puck and play with the puck. You’re never going to give up the goal when you’re with the puck.”
That’s also apparently a good formula for scoring.
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