Shirtless and still sweating, defenseman Brooks Orpik leaned against a wall inside the Washington Capitals’ Verizon Center dressing room, one adorned with a blown-up photo of the Stanley Cup, and searched for his unlikely buddy. Somewhere among the cameras stood forward Evgeny Kuznetsov, the hero of Monday night’s Game 7 victory over the New York Islanders, the breakout star of the first round, the 22-year-old Russian this American had slipped under his wing.
“Yeah, probably not a friendship most people would see,” Orpik said, arms folded and smiling, “but he’s just a really, really likable guy.”
Orpik first noticed that happy-go-lucky personality months earlier when they joined the Capitals, Orpik as a free agent signing and Kuznetsov a recent immigrant. He talked about it again Monday night after the brightest moment in Kuznetsov’s young NHL career.
In the third period of the series finale, Kuznetsov had dashed across the slot and weaved through the defense with such evasion that, by the time his game-winning goal struck the top shelf, sealing a 2-1 victory, three Islanders had fallen to the ice.
Over the course of the regular season, the Capitals watched Kuznetsov attack a positional change as he did the Islanders’ defensive-zone coverage, poring over video of the NHL’s elite centers and drilling faceoffs until it became second nature. They saw him rise from a fourth-liner seeing little playing time to the late-season answer on the top line, shuttled there when Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom needed breaking apart. They heard his English improve greatly, with cliches and idioms sprinkled into his locker-room conversation to hilarious results.
“Everyone in the room loves him,” Orpik said. “He comes to the rink every day, and he’s laughing and smiling. Really, every day. I haven’t seen him in a bad mood all year.”
So the Capitals viewed Game 7 not as Kuznetsov’s surprise coming-out party but as the culmination of a season’s worth of work. They saw the confidence Kuznetsov carried across the open ice, absorbing a slash to the shins in the process, and the patience he demonstrated in waiting for goaltender Jaroslav Halak to guess low before shooting high. And they know Kuznetsov will be a critical component of their quest to upend the New York Rangers in the second round, starting Thursday at Madison Square Garden.
Perhaps no one can explain Kuznetsov’s ascension better than Orpik, a defenseman a dozen years his senior who fields texts from Kuznetsov about American television and began learning Russian by using Rosetta Stone.
“He knows all of the bad stuff and the bad words,” Kuznetsov said.
Before the 2006-07 season, when Kuznetsov was barely a teenager living in Russia, the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted countryman Evgeni Malkin second overall behind Ovechkin. Orpik, entering his third full season with the Penguins, noticed how veteran Sergei Gonchar became a mentor of sorts for the rookie.
Gonchar taught Malkin about adjusting to the smaller rink size in North America and helped him feel “accustomed to how things work off the ice,” Orpik said. “I think it’s on the guys in the room to try to make those guys feel really comfortable off the ice. Because if you don’t feel comfortable off the ice, you’re not going to feel comfortable with your teammates on the ice.”
Roughly nine years later, Orpik recalled this to explain how he and Kuznetsov had become good friends. Their locker stalls are near each other at Kettler Capitals Iceplex, part of Coach Barry Trotz’s plan to station veterans next to rookies. On the road, Kuznetsov takes Orpik to Russian restaurants, and Orpik returns the favor by teaching him English phrases.
“It is what it is” was used frequently earlier in the season, as was “I am the man,” which came from a song and not personal cockiness. “It’s not my first rodeo” is a recent favorite and felt especially appropriate after Game 7. After all, Kuznetsov had starred in the Capitals’ Game 5 win, too, netting two goals and one assist, his first three postseason points.
“It’s always good when you start going to dinner with some English guys and you start talking more, more and more, and then you learn English more,” Kuznetsov said in Russian. “You don’t see it, but then after six or seven months, you understand that your English is much better.”
Of course. Dinner. The great bonding activity among athletes. Not long ago, Kuznetsov invited Orpik to a birthday celebration for his wife, who is expecting their first child, at a Russian restaurant not far from Verizon Center. Orpik had tried Russian food with Malkin, but he received the full-fledged experience under Kuznetsov’s tutelage.
“We taught him how he needs to eat,” Kuznetsov said. “Some Russian food, if you see it for the first time, you’re confused a little bit.”
If Orpik — whose usual diet includes bison burgers and broccoli sprouts — was taken aback by the pelimeni (meat dumplings) and goulash with grechka (soup with buckwheat), imagine how Kuznetsov felt after arriving in the United States last March, a long-awaited prospect with five seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League under his belt. The Capitals had drafted him 26th overall in 2010, then waited four years before finalizing his entry-level contract.
“The Loch Ness Monster,” former general manager George McPhee had called Kuznetsov when he finally arrived at their practice facility, because “we’ve heard of you but we haven’t seen you.” He was the mystery prospect, a two-time all-star in Russia but unproven in the NHL. And soon, with McPhee and former coach Adam Oates both dismissed, a new regime arrived with a new plan: They wanted Kuznetsov to become a center.
The transition lurched from the starting blocks, when fellow rookie Andre Burakovsky grabbed the second-line job and Kuznetsov began the season opener on the fourth line. He recorded assists in three straight games in mid-October, then again in early November, but saw his ice time fluctuate and his deployment sheltered inside the offensive zone.
Trotz’s trust in Kuznetsov grew with time, and by the end of the season he had few qualms about sending out Kuznetsov’s line for a high-pressure, defensive-zone draw. In five of seven games against the Islanders, Kuznetsov logged at least 16 minutes, which he did only 13 times during the entire regular season. During Game 5, he swatted an airborne puck into the net and later deked around Halak at the goalmouth, slipping a backhander through the five-hole. Then, with the series and game tied Monday night, Kuznetsov delivered the Capitals into the next round.
“It’s what we were hoping for,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “You don’t really know what to expect with anybody in the playoffs. You find some pretty crazy heroes, guys that you don’t really expect to be heroes. We knew he had it in him, but we were just wondering if it was going to work out, and so far, it has.”
Indeed, among the Capitals, admiration for Kuznetsov is not confined to Orpik, who called him the team’s most improved player since training camp. Troy Brouwer remembered how Kuznetsov insists on eating last because of his rookie status, even though Washington does not observe such practices. Michael Latta and Tom Wilson nicknamed him “Harry Potter,” comparing his stick to a magic wand. Burakovsky recalled their mutual nervousness last fall when together they adjusted to the NHL. Today, Burakovsky said, “I think he’s one of the best players on the team.”
It was Wednesday afternoon now, not long before the Capitals boarded their chartered plane, bound for midtown Manhattan and the Eastern Conference semifinals. With such high stakes, Kuznetsov planned to forgo any excursions to Russian eateries, preferring to lay low in the hotel. But there still would be time to explore with Orpik, to discuss hockey and maybe even pick up some new phrases.
“I’ve got to teach him some more,” Orpik said. “He said he wanted to walk around New York today, so maybe I’ll give him one today. We’ll see.”