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Evgeny Kuznetsov, electric but inconsistent, might be the key for the Caps this season

Evgeny Kuznetsov and the Capitals visit the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Just a few years ago, in the spring of 2018, Evgeny Kuznetsov scored one of the biggest goals in Washington Capitals history.

Kuznetsov’s shot lifted the Capitals to an overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on that May night. It prompted his trademark bird celebration on the ice. It silenced a raucous crowd in Pittsburgh. It sent the Capitals to the Eastern Conference finals, the deepest the team had advanced since 1998. They would lift the Stanley Cup about a month later.

The Kuznetsov of 2018 was engaged, dynamic, smooth-skating. He was arguably one of the best players in the NHL and certainly one of the best of that postseason. He helped the Capitals vanquish their playoff demons with a brilliant run.

And he has not been consistent since. Washington, which will visit Pittsburgh at noon Sunday, will need that 2018 version of the Russian star to return to have another shot at the Stanley Cup this season.

“If he can play the way he can get to, it just elevates the whole level of our team,” Capitals General Manager Brian MacLellan said. “... He’s the key for us. When he is on, we are a different team. We are a deeper team. We can score, we got lines that can score, and we are hard to defend. We are hard to match up against when he is playing at his highest level. Sometimes he is in and out, but when he is at that level, I mean, we are a good team. We are a really good team.”

Kuznetsov had an inconsistent 2018-19 campaign, finishing with 21 goals and 51 assists in 76 games. MacLellan called his play during that season “frustrating.”

In May 2019, he tested positive for cocaine, which isn’t a banned substance in the NHL, while representing the Russian national team at the world championships. Kuznetsov was suspended for inappropriate conduct and missed the first three games of the Capitals’ season.

He ended up with 19 goals and 33 assists in 63 regular season games, adding three goals and two assists in the postseason. Washington lost in the first round, falling to the New York Islanders in five games.

“Kuzy is one of our leaders,” captain Alex Ovechkin said Thursday. “He knows how good he can be. … If he is going to play the same level we know how he can play, he is going to help us.”

This season Kuznetsov has a new coach in Peter Laviolette, who was hired in September to replace the ousted Todd Reirden. Laviolette, who had only a brief training camp to work with Kuznetsov before the season started with a win Thursday in Buffalo, said he noticed how much Kuznetsov has the puck on his stick — and how he can keep it as long he wants.

“His skill level is really good,” Laviolette said.

The players have a clean slate with Laviolette, who is focused on what has happened under his watch in Washington.

“History follows you a little bit,” Laviolette said. “... I would like to think that mine would be that I have never betrayed a player. I haven’t gone in a direction where a new team would have to have its guard up. But ... there is work to be done.”

Kuznetsov praised Laviolette’s system and the way he carried himself around the team during training camp. The 28-year-old is one of the first voices you can hear on the ice at the Capitals’ practice facility and at morning skates, loudly talking in Russian to his countrymen or commenting on someone’s shot during drills.

Kuznetsov skated with Tom Wilson and Jakub Vrana during the first two games, a change from his usual spot alongside Ovechkin and Wilson on the top line. Laviolette said Kuznetsov didn’t do anything wrong to prompt the switch. The lines were just a “starting point,” and the change worked. The top line of Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie and Nicklas Backstrom combined for two goals and five assists in Thursday’s 6-4 victory. And in Friday’s 2-1 win over the Sabres, Wilson had a goal and an assist and Vrana also scored.

Wilson said Thursday that he enjoys skating with Kuznetsov because of his playmaking ability. It’s Wilson job to get open, he said, and Kuznetsov always knows how to find him.

“When he’s playing his game and playing well, he is probably a top-five forward of the league,” Wilson said. “… Consistency is huge. If he is consistent night in and night out, he drives our team and helps us. He has so much talent, and it is a ton of fun to play with him.”