Evgeny Kuznetsov shoved Artemi Panarin against the boards. Panarin jabbed Kuznetsov with his stick in response. Kuznetsov then slashed him, and the referee’s hand flew up for a penalty. Panarin retaliated with a cross-check to Kuznetsov’s arm, with the players’ visors suddenly inches from each other as they faced off in competitive frustration.
Well, Kuznetsov did promise to at least say hello to the player he’s known since they were 5-year-olds in Chelyabinsk, Russia.
“But we’re not that close to calling FaceTime before sleep. We’re not that close,” Kuznetsov said before the series. “We’re from the same home town. It doesn’t mean anything right now. He go after me, I’ll go after him.”
Thursday night’s first game of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets provided a taste of the impact each player can have on his team and on who ultimately advances. Kuznetsov scored two power-play goals to give the Capitals an early 2-0 lead. Panarin scored the overtime game-winner, mobbed by his teammates after giving them a surprising 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“Great shot,” Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer said of Panarin’s bar-down beauty. “You give him too much room, too much space, and he makes something happen. Same as if you give Kuzy too much time. It’s the same type of player — really shifty, really speedy.”
Kuznetsov’s two-goal performance highlighted a welcome change the Capitals have seen in his game: a willingness to shoot that makes the dynamic center even more of a scoring threat, something the team will need now that it’s in an early hole. But his third-period slashing penalty on Panarin underscored what was ultimately Washington’s undoing in its 4-3 loss: a lack of discipline that allowed Columbus to battle back from its early two-goal deficit and then a one-goal shortfall in the third period.
Then in overtime, Panarin did what the Blue Jackets hoped he would when they acquired him in a blockbuster trade with Chicago last summer: He pushed them over the top. In a series with five high-profile Russians, the two who once played together in the same impoverished town might star most in this Stanley Cup playoff matchup played 20 years later.
“Town is unbelievable town,” Kuznetsov said of Chelyabinsk. “It’s over a million people living there, and it’s maybe on the pictures looks not that beautiful, but when you live there, you enjoy. And I feel like the people in this town, they special. They know every player, especially old people, they saw so many great players and they respect you and they have respect for the hockey players.”
Chelyabinsk is just to the east of Russia’s Ural Mountains, the region arguably most famous for the meteor that exploded over it in 2013. Panarin and Kuznetsov played at the same Traktor Chelyabinsk academy until a 13-year-old Panarin changed teams. Panarin lived with his grandparents in nearby Korkino and commuted daily for hockey practice.
Kuznetsov described long days at the rink, with his mother having to beg him to come home at least to have some lunch. Though he lived close to the rink, it wasn’t safe for him to walk home alone at night, so his parents would escort him. It was then that a young Kuznetsov started to understand that hockey could be his avenue to “a different life.”
“When we was young, we think, ‘Oh, if we make the team, we can buy the laptop, we can buy some other things and then we can buy the car,’ ” Kuznetsov said. “It’s really good motivation for us together. And then you think, ‘Then I can get money and buy apartment for parents,’ you know? We can help our families or whatever. … I’m very lucky I catch that time when no one help you. It’s only you, and your parents always telling you, ‘Hey, if you want to be the best, practice and work more and more.’ ”
Said Panarin: “We’re probably similar, but we’re still different. We grew up.”
The skating style and philosophy of puck possession are shared traits, but “he’s more goal scorer,” Kuznetsov said of Panarin. Kuznetsov was raised to think pass-first, but before this season, Coach Barry Trotz set a bar of 25 goals for him. He started shooting more in February, averaging 2.7 shots per game over the last two-plus months of the regular season to score 14 goals in his last 29 games. This campaign brought his career high for shots on goal per game (2.37), and he finished with a career-high 27 goals.
“To be a real productive player, I think you have to be a little bit selfish,” Trotz said recently. “I think the productive players have a little bit of that. They want to score. They want to be productive. For Kuzy, always pass-first when he got here, now he’s getting a little more balanced. …
“He’s got a lot of deception in his game, and now that he’s shooting the puck more, I think he’s twice as dangerous offensively because he’s got the ability to freeze the goaltender and make him play deep because he doesn’t know if he’s going to go lateral or shoot the puck.”
Panarin also took more ownership of his team this season. When he was traded to Columbus, Panarin was nervous about his uncertain future. He’s been in North America for less than three years, and he’s still uncomfortable conversing in English. But the more he thought about it, the more he saw an opportunity. Away from Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, Panarin could have a bigger role with the Blue Jackets.
“I always wanted something more, to put more of the game on myself and be more accountable for the result,” Panarin said.
“The greatest thing — and this is why I think he’s still under the radar for how great of a player this guy is — Panarin, he makes other people really good, too, which really backed me off,” Columbus Coach John Tortorella said. “I didn’t even notice that when I watched him play from afar when he was in Chicago. I just noticed his goal scoring. He’s a hell of a player. He can put the puck in the net, and he makes other people better. That’s a huge point when you’re playing in a series, and the great players on teams that can do that help their teams move along.”
The Capitals could say the same about Kuznetsov, and the two will continue to duel in these playoffs as they did Thursday night. And the victor may become the answer to a pressing pre-series question: Who’s more famous in Chelyabinsk?
“I don’t know,” Kuznetsov said then. “You should go to my town and ask.”
Read more on the Capitals: