Kuznetsov’s tally in the middle period led the Capitals’ four-goal comeback en route to a 6-5 shootout victory Friday against the Canucks, but his first goal, at 3:18 of the first, was just as impressive. His hit on Canucks forward Micheal Ferland on the boards led to a Vancouver turnover. The puck ended up on the stick of speedy Jakub Vrana, who dished it to a streaking Kuznetsov for a wrist shot from close range. Kuznetsov had a game-high seven shots on goal.
“I was just in the right moment and perfect position when guys just give it to me,” Kuznetsov said. “You know it felt like I shoot a little bit more than before, and I think that’s it for a couple games for sure.”
Reirden called the game Kuznetsov’s “strongest of the year.” With the coaching staff having to ask more than usual of some of its players during a 4-3 overtime loss at the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday night because of missed reads and poor play in crucial situations, Reirden knew coming into Vancouver for the second leg of the back-to-back would be a challenge.
Knowing how easily Kuznetsov skates and creates on the ice, Reirden pulled him aside before the game and informed him of the plan: “Be ready to play a quite a bit tonight.” He finished with 21:58 of ice time, the most of any forward on the team. Reirden was double-shifting him throughout, playing him on the wing at the end of the second, which led to the goal at the buzzer. In a game in which Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson were stifled, it was Kuznetsov’s play that carried the team into its impressive third period.
“He had a really strong game and very happy for him,” Reirden said. “Obviously [he’s] been through a lot and continuing to improve and get better.”
While Kuznetsov’s offensive game again showed up on the stat sheet, it is Kuznetsov’s two-way game that has Reirden impressed. Despite recording 72 points (21 goals, 51 assists) last season, Kuznetsov was streaky, with stretches when you couldn’t remember seeing the skilled center on the ice. Kuznetsov needed to work on his defense, and in the offseason Reirden starting seeing him do just that.
Even when Kuznetsov wasn’t scoring goals in the previous four games before Friday night, Reirden was happy with how the Russian was focusing more on other aspects of his game, including faceoffs. Through 10 games, Kuznetsov has a faceoff percentage of 48.5. Last year he ended at 38.7.
“I think right now it is important to him,” Reirden said. “It allows him to have the puck more often, and he is so dangerous when he has the puck that I think it has allowed his mind to get him more possession time.”
Kuznetsov said he wanted to focus more on the details of his game in the defensive zone this season, working to maintain consistency on both ends of the ice, even when the puck doesn’t bounce in his favor. He has five goals and four assists through 10 games. After wanting to let his play on the ice speak for him after he was suspended for the first three games for inappropriate conduct, Kuznetsov is starting to find his spark.
“Yeah, I mean, you always believe,” Kuznetsov said. “It doesn’t matter how games go — you will be better next period.”
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