EDMONTON — It took two towels to wipe the shaving cream off his face, and still white clouds remained on his cheeks and in the corners of his eyes. Evgeny Kuznetsov didn’t even raise his arms in celebration when he scored his third goal against Edmonton on Friday night, keeping his fist-pumping to himself, but the Washington Capitals didn’t let him off so easily
Alex Ovechkin retrieved Kuznetsov’s keepsake puck, and just to ensure he was adequately singled out for his accomplishment, Ovechkin smothered Kuznetsov’s face with a shaving cream-filled towel while the latter was in the middle of a postgame interview.
But when it was Kuznetsov’s turn to talk and he was asked about the emotions of scoring that third goal — a wrist shot from the right faceoff circle on a power play for his first NHL hat trick — he deflected the attention again.
“I feel we got two points,” Kuznetsov said after the 7-4 win. “That’s all I need.”
Kuznetsov’s 11 points are at the center of Washington’s 6-1-0 start. His development has given the Capitals a one-two punch at center with Nicklas Backstrom that is a matchup nightmare for opponents, many of whom don’t have two reliable defensive pairings to contain both of their lines.
He’s benefited from centering the top line, but Kuznetsov’s play would likely dazzle even without his talented teammates. His crisp assists belong in hockey trick shot videos instead of on game tape. But ask Kuznetsov to talk about himself, and he squirms. His teammates are happy to say what he won’t.
“He’s kind of shy, I would say, for the media,” Backstrom said. “But inside, I know he feels pretty good, so that’s all that matters.”
The Capitals knew they had a talented player, but Kuznetsov’s first full NHL season was uneven as he adjusted to playing center and to an unfamiliar league. He got more comfortable down the home stretch, recording 37
His breakthrough in the postseason left no doubt that the Capitals had found their second-line center. But with Backstrom missing the first three games this season, Kuznetsov, 23, started the season on the first line. His play has justified keeping him there even after Backstrom’s return.
Through seven games, Kuznetsov is second in the league in points to Boston’s David Krejci. His highlight-reel plays are passed around on social media, but Coach Barry Trotz appreciates the subtle improvements. Trotz pointed out earlier this week that Kuznetsov was “absolutely terrible” at faceoffs in the offensive zone last year (38.9 percent), but he’s steadily improved to 46 percent this season.
On Washington’s three-game western Canada trip, Trotz got the requisite questions from Canadian reporters about Ovechkin at every stop and he told the same stories with the same sincerity. But he also was asked repeatedly about Kuznetsov.
“It’s not even the same person,” Trotz said in Vancouver. “We always knew he had the skill, but his pro game — his North American game — has really come along. He’s not afraid of the big moments. He’s not afraid of the top players in the league. He wants to be one of the best guys in the game, and I think he can be.”
For someone uncomfortable with attention, Kuznetsov has started to command it. In the Capitals’ 6-2 win at Calgary on Tuesday, Kuznetsov skated behind the net, then dragged the puck across his body before a backhand pass to Andre Burakovsky, who scored.
“It was a lucky play,” Kuznetsov said after the game. “Always lucky.”
That would’ve been more believable if Kuznetsov hadn’t executed the same pass to T.J. Oshie against the Carolina Hurricanes. Oshie fired, but goaltender Cam Ward made an impressive glove save.
“Some of the things he does on the ice, I wonder how someone does those things,” defenseman Nate Schmidt said in Vancouver. “He makes extraordinary plays look ordinary, the things that he does and the passes that he makes. He’s such a talented player, and he’s only going to get better. And that’s the scary part about him.”
The pass to Burakovsky was brought up, and Schmidt just shook his head in wonderment. Was it lucky? Schmidt laughed and turned to defenseman Dmitry Orlov, a close friend of Kuznetsov’s.
“I don’t know. Snarls, what do you think?” Schmidt said. “Kuzy’s backhand pass lucky?”
Orlov smiled and rolled his eyes. “No.”
Burakovsky agreed, saying every time Kuznetsov takes the puck behind the net, his teammates know to follow behind and anticipate it. Trotz referred to it as an “against the grain” pass, describing the degree of difficulty as high because he saucer passes the puck when he’s already three-quarters of the way across the back of the net.
“The thing is selling it,” Trotz said. “With the resources of video across the league and NHL Network, YouTube and all that, goalies are catching onto it a little bit. He’s got a couple other tricks up his sleeve. . . . That’s just some of the things that Kuzy can do.”
Two hours later, Kuznetsov got his hat trick. That’s apparently another of the things Kuzy can do.