The Verizon Center crowd was uncharacteristically quiet, and a former Capitals prospect who got away had just scored another goal against the team that had drafted him. For the first time in a long time, Washington fans had to consider that a season that has gone so smoothly could feature another weapon if not for the ill-fated trade of Filip Forsberg almost three years ago.
Except Evgeny Kuznetsov wasn’t wearing a Capitals sweater back then, and it took just three nifty passes Friday night for the 23-year-old to remind everybody in red that there’s no need to look back. With its newest star in the middle of all the action again, Washington skated to a 4-1 win over Nashville for its first victory by more than one goal since Feb. 16.
Kuznetsov finished with three more flashy assists, including two in the second period after the Capitals fell behind 1-0 for the 14th time in 17 games. Daniel Winnik, a trade deadline acquisition last month, added his first two goals since arriving in the District eight games ago, and Washington moved within three wins of setting a franchise record for home victories.
Afterward, teammates and coaches alike were again raving about Kuznetsov’s preternatural vision, even if he didn’t want to acknowledge all the fuss.
“It’s hard to say. It just happens sometimes,” Kuznetsov said sheepishly, trying to play down his role. “I just give the puck to my line, and they have to score. I’m always happy when my line scores the goals.”
A familiar face started the night’s scoring early in the second period, eliciting a groan from the home crowd. Forsberg, a former Capitals first-round draft pick who was acquired by Nashville in April 2013 for the forgettable Martin Erat, fired a blazing snap shot past Braden Holtby’s glove for a power-play goal to give the Predators a 1-0 advantage.
That, though, would be the last gasp for Nashville, which entered Friday with just one regulation loss in its previous 17 games. Kuznetsov, the emerging Russian star, quickly provided the burst of energy for the home team.
The Capitals equalized less than eight minutes into the second frame when Holtby caught the Predators in a slow line change at the end of a Washington power play and fed Kuznetsov with a long pass along the boards near Nashville’s blue line. Kuznetsov took care of the rest, faking a slap shot to freeze Nashville netminder Carter Hutton before finding Winnik streaking toward the net for an easy first goal.
Winnik admitted he thought the window for a pass had closed, but he has quickly come to learn how “deceptive” his new center has become this season.
“I knew he was a good center, but I didn’t know he was this good,” Winnik said. “He showed all his passing skills tonight.”
Less than five minutes later, Kuznetsov pulled off the sort of slick passing display that is only routine for him. Skating the opposite direction behind Nashville’s net, he quickly glanced over his shoulder and fired a backhanded pass to linemate T.J. Oshie. The ensuing one-timer bounced off the far side of the net for Oshie’s career-high 22nd goal.
Kuznetsov called the sequence a “lucky play,” but Oshie knew better after a season full of highlight-reel feeds.
“Playing with Kuzy, those are the things you have to expect. He sees things that maybe only a handful of players in the league can see,” Oshie said. “Even when it does come, you kind of think to yourself, ‘How did he just do that?’ ”
Washington then closed the second period with a bang when defenseman Dmitry Orlov skated straight through the neutral zone and found Winnik for a long wrist shot with just 18 seconds remaining. Once the Capitals returned to the ice following the second intermission, the player known in the locker room as “Harry Potter” for his stick wizardry delivered again to erase any hopes of a Nashville comeback.
Just 36 seconds into the third period, Kuznetsov collected the puck behind Nashville’s net and found forward Andre Burakovsky charging down the slot for a point-blank goal. The pass became Kuznetsov’s 53rd assist, putting him second in the NHL. Not that his teammates needed any confirmation of his magic at this point.
“A lot of people can maybe see that at times, top-level guys,” Holtby said. “But he executes it all the time. He’s fun to watch.”