In a game against the Arizona Coyotes last week, Capitals forward T.J. Oshie beat his man down the ice, spinning to pass the puck into the slot, where Evgeny Kuznetsov had just the goaltender directly in front of him for the overtime game-winner. But Kuznetsov inexplicably attempted to pass back to Oshie in the corner, stunning everyone in Capital One Arena — including Oshie, who was well out of position to get the puck back and take a shot.
The Capitals still won, 3-2, but a few days later, Coach Barry Trotz was asked whether he would like to see Kuznetsov be a little more selfish and shoot more. “Yeah, absolutely, especially when he’s in the blue paint,” Trotz cracked, referencing the color of the goal crease.
“I saw Osh, and I thought he’s waiting for that pass back,” Kuznetsov said. “… Sometimes I know I have to shoot, but in that moment, because he’d worked all of the way from behind the net, he skates so hard, he wins one-on-one, I just have to pass to him because he did so many hard things in that 20 seconds. I did nothing, and why do I have to score? He did everything. That’s why I want him to score.”
Trotz said Kuznetsov should consistently be scoring 25 goals after he scored 20 and 19 in the past two seasons. He’s got 19 points in the first 17 games of this campaign, but just three of those points have been goals, meaning he’s on pace to finish with fewer than 20 this season.
“I don’t think I play too much pass,” Kuznetsov said. “Sometimes, I just want to enjoy the game. It’s easy to watch the tape after you did something on the ice, but when I’m on the ice and I feel like someone open every time, I just want to make my linemates happy.”
Said Trotz: “I think what it does when he does shoot, it will open up his wingers for him, too. Because everybody’s shading to the wingers right now because they think he’s just looking for his wingers. He’s just got to shoot a little bit more. Be more of a threat. He’s a threat gaining the zone; he’s a threat when he gets to the top of the circles. And he can shoot the puck.”
Kuznetsov has actually been shooting more this year, taking 2.29 shots per game, up from 2.07 last season. On the Capitals, his 39 shots are tied for third with rookie Jakub Vrana.
Kuznetsov seems to bring his best against Edmonton, Washington’s opponent Sunday. He has five goals and two assists in seven career games against the Oilers, perhaps enjoying the challenge of facing superstar center Connor McDavid. In a game at Edmonton last month, Kuznetsov potted two goals, but while he has set up plenty of goals in the six games since, he hasn’t scored any himself.
“I think Kuzy is a proud player, and it’s always a good measuring stick when he gets to play against the best players in the world and he gets to measure himself up against them,” Trotz said. “I think he always looks at it as a little bit of a challenge. I think top players do that.”
As expected, Brett Connolly will be back in the Capitals’ lineup Sunday after he missed the past seven games with a concussion. At the morning skate Sunday, Connolly took rushes with the fourth line beside center Jay Beagle and right wing Alex Chiasson. In his first 10 games before he got hurt, he was playing on the third line, posting a goal and an assist.
“When you come back from any injury, you don’t lose your spot, per se, but I think right now, we’re trying to get some balance,” Trotz said. “I think it’ll be a good fit, and we’ll adjust as we go along. He’s missed a little bit of time, so it’s more about getting him back acclimated and back playing. He should be fine.”
Though defenseman Matt Niskanen (hand) and forward Tyler Graovac (“upper-body”) have been skating with the team, neither is ready to play yet. Trotz said Niskanen has been cleared for “some contact, but he’s not full totally out of the woods there.” Niskanen, who’s been on long-term injured reserve since Oct. 14, will join the Capitals on their road trip to Nashville and Colorado next week.
“If he plays or not, I don’t know yet,” Trotz said. “But he’s close enough where he’s going to skate, where we have a couple of practices. He needs to get back with the guys.”
Here’s how the Capitals’ lineup is expected to look against the Oilers on Sunday:
Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Devante Smith-Pelly
Chandler Stephenson-Nicklas Backstrom-T.J. Oshie
Jakub Vrana-Lars Eller-Tom Wilson
Brett Connolly-Jay Beagle-Alex Chiasson
Scratched: Nathan Walker
Christian Djoos-John Carlson
Brooks Orpik-Madison Bowey
Dmitry Orlov-Taylor Chorney
Scratched: Aaron Ness
Braden Holtby (starter)