The thick language barrier between English and his native Russian had often kept Evgeny Kuznetsov from fully understanding the jokes hurled by teammates, so the Capitals forward recently sought payback in the universal symbol of the sweaty jockstrap.
After Monday’s morning skate, as cameras swarmed Alex Ovechkin, Kuznetsov stood behind the scrum, a grin stretching his cheeks, and tried to make his countryman break by brandishing the undergarment above everyone’s heads.
It was payback, Kuznetsov explained, for Ovechkin ribbing him during an interview in Toronto. It was also a silly practical joke, entirely typical of the fast-skating, fun-loving, happy-to-be-here 22-year-old rookie who is enjoying a torrid stretch thanks to his ability to improvise.
“Sometimes when we [are] on the road, at home, dinner, we joke,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s funny because I can’t understand whole joke, my language, sometimes guys start joke in English and I don’t understand. All guys laugh and I’m sit like, I have no idea what’s going on.”
His teammates, however, understand the impact of Kuznetsov’s recent play: Over the past two games, he has pinged at least five shots off posts. Across a three-game stretch, he has won 66.7 percent of draws and earned Coach Barry Trotz’s trust for more frequent defensive-zone deployment. He has centered 17 straight games between Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer and recorded even-strength shot differentials above 50 percent in three of the past four games after eclipsing that barrier just three times in the previous 11.
Sitting next to each other in the Capitals’ locker room, Brouwer and Ovechkin offered different explanations for Kuznetsov’s emergence.
“He’s doing well,” Brouwer said. “He’s got a lot of confidence in his game right now. He’s getting some good chances. Like anybody, there’s times where things might not go in for him, but he’s really settled in. I know he was not playing probably as well as he would’ve liked at the beginning of the season, but he’s got a lot more trust with Trotz now, and we’re getting ice time as a result.”
Said Ovechkin: “He’s working out with me, so . . .”
Either way, Kuznetsov has produced several prime scoring chances, like on his third shift Monday night against the Colorado Avalanche. Along the boards with Johansson, Kuznetsov dug out the puck and found defenseman Brooks Orpik diving into the slot. A nifty give-and-go later, Kuznetsov stepped up and ripped a shot that zoomed off the crossbar and out of play.
When Trotz penned his lines this preseason, he tried developing both Kuznetsov and 19-year-old rookie Andre Burakovsky, both European wingers with similar skill sets, up the middle. Burakovsky won the initial battle, but Kuznetsov overtook that role in the months since as both players balanced healthy scratches and decreased ice time with the rigors of the NHL.
Despite the language barrier, Trotz noticed Kuznetsov answering questions in meetings with confidence, rather than sporting the deer-in-the-headlights confusion he sometimes saw in young players. He watched Kuznetsov study film of centers he admired, such as teammate Nicklas Backstrom, Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby. He saw post-practice faceoff work pay off, particularly in the defensive zone, where Kuznetsov has won 54.9 percent of his draws.
“He’s one of those guys who looks at things, studies it, watches good players on the other team, and makes observations and addresses his game,” Trotz said. “There’s a good growth pattern for him.”
Most of all, though, Trotz discovered Kuznetsov’s fearless confidence, the kind that’s helped him succeed in December and January, the kind that prompts him to ask team officials whether reporters need to chat despite the language barrier, or the kind that moves him to undress after practice, remove his jock strap and hold it high like John Cusack’s boom box in the movie “Say Anything.”
Take, for instance, when Trotz called Kuznetsov for a recent meeting to review footage of centers he might match up against for upcoming games. As Trotz moved through the tendencies that made those opposing centers so strong, the skills that made the Capitals concerned about defending, Kuznetsov looked at Trotz and said, “Coach, I want them to worry about me.”
Note: The Capitals recalled Steve Oleksy from Hershey, adding him as a seventh defenseman with Nate Schmidt facing a six-to-eight-week recovery from a fractured shoulder blade. Jack Hillen has started five of six games in 2015, and barring injury he will continue to skate beside Mike Green on the third pairing through the all-star break.
“I think he’s going to be No. 7 until the all-star break, then we’ll see where we are at that point,” Trotz said of Oleksy.