The bird was back this week, flapping his wings in his trademark celebration after a game-winning breakaway in overtime, swearing into a live microphone minutes later during a postgame interview and grinning all the while. It was center Evgeny Kuznetsov at his bewildering best, and it was a welcome sight for the Washington Capitals.
As the team has earned seven out of a possible 10 points so far on this six-game homestand, Kuznetsov has been the Capitals’ best player, reinforcing the notion that as he goes so do they. Washington has started to steadily build its game back up after finishing January with a seven-game losing streak, and it’s no coincidence that it’s been with Kuznetsov scoring four goals — two were game-winners, including the overtime breakaway Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche that prompted Kuznetsov’s birdlike postscript — with four assists over the past five games.
And it’s these dazzling stretches that can make Kuznetsov so confounding for the organization. He was the Capitals’ leading scorer in their run to the Stanley Cup last postseason, and while it may be asking too much for him to maintain that level of play for an entire regular season, he wasn’t all that close to his full potential for the two months before Washington’s recent bye week. Now that he has gotten back to the version of himself that can change the game any time the puck is on his stick, the Capitals want to see him maintain that more consistently.
“How hard he wants to compete out there dictates [his play],” General Manager Brian MacLellan said last month. “He could be one of the best players in the league, if he chose to be.”
Asked again Monday about Kuznetsov’s play, MacLellan was just as blunt.
“I think for our organization, for our team to do well, we need him at the top of his game,” MacLellan said. “Depending on how you look at it, it was one or two — [captain Alex Ovechkin] and him for MVP last year in the playoffs. That’s why we did well, because Kuznetsov played well. I think if he’s not going to play at that level, we’re not going to do as well. He’s that important to our team.”
In Washington’s first game out of the bye week Feb. 1 against Calgary, Kuznetsov scored the game-winning goal on a power play in the final minute of the game. Two days later, he took a needless slashing minor in the neutral zone seven seconds after the Capitals had just successfully gotten through a penalty kill, prompting Coach Todd Reirden to bench him for the rest of the first period at five-on-five. Kuznetsov’s response? “That [expletive] happens, right?” he said.
“Sometimes I feel like that's a bad call, but then when you look it's actually not a bad call and you get too emotional during the game and that's how those mistakes happen when you take penalties, when you get too overemotional,” he continued. “Or sometimes you're too bored in the game and then you're trying to get back into the game and you over-slash somebody, so that's not good.”
Those kinds of comments are as charming as they are chafing for Washington. Of the 100 centers who have taken the most faceoffs in the NHL this season entering Sunday, Kuznetsov’s 38.8 percent success rate ranks dead last, a big reason the Capitals are the league’s worst team on draws. He largely shrugged that off, too. “I always believe if we lost the faceoff, we get puck back in two seconds,” he said.
Reconciling those quirks is part of the deal with Kuznetsov — Kuzy being Kuzy. He is at his best when he is that fun-loving, lighthearted character, but that can often create the impression that he is not always taking things seriously or trying his hardest, as MacLellan alluded. After he started the season with seven points in the first three games, Kuznetsov was asked if winning the Hart Trophy, the NHL’s MVP award, was a goal.
“I don’t give a [expletive] about that,” he said in October. “To be MVP, you have to work hard 365 [days] in a year, but I’m not ready for that.”
Asked about that edict Sunday, Kuznetsov explained that, in his opinion, being the best player in the league would require him to score so much that he would feel “selfish.”
“Of course every player want to be best player, but if you want to be like that, the way I understand, you have to get like 50 goals at least, right?” he said. “You can’t win that with 30 goals. That would be stupid. You’re not the best. To be best, you’ve got to score 50, right? And to score 50, you either have to have a shot like Ovi, so you don’t have to shoot 10 times a game — he can shoot three times and two of them can be in — and well, I don’t have a shot like that. …
“That’s not the way I want to play, and I don’t think the guys, my teammates, would like to play with a player like that.”
(Edmonton’s Connor McDavid won the Hart Trophy two seasons ago with 30 goals, though he had 70 assists to go along with that, giving him the only 100-point campaign in the NHL that season. New Jersey winger Taylor Hall won with 39 goals and 54 assists last season, and the last Hart Trophy winner who scored 50 goals was Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin in 2011-12.)
Before this month, Kuznetsov had scored just three goals at even strength — the other six came when Washington had a power play, and all in the first 12 games of the season — and though he has two even-strength goals in the past five games, he rejected the notion that he is playing any differently.
“I think I play the same way like I did,” he said. “Sometimes when you have pretty good looks and you did not score, most [people], they're not watching the games, right? They look at the stats — how many goals, how many assists you had — and that's why I don't like in this league so many people focusing on that. But sometimes you can do some other things and then end up, you know, you're going to have a couple assists and now everyone loves you back. That's kind of bull----, I think.”
There’s a lot to love about Kuznetsov when he is playing like this, and the more often the Capitals see that gleeful bird flapping his wings, the better their chances of repeating as champions.
“He’s such a unique player that when he’s really going, when he’s on, it changes the whole game,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It seems like he can make something out of nothing, make something happen after he gets the puck. When he’s not playing his best, it’s not that he’s not trying or anything, but the last couple games something happened where all of a sudden he’s feeling it. And it’s noticeable every shift. …
“He’s so talented that when he’s having just an okay game for him, he can still have a goal and an assist and be a pretty dang good player. But what he’s capable of — and we’ve all seen it — he’s been closer to that the last couple of games.”