Evgeny Kuznetsov winced as soon as he stepped into the circle of television cameras waiting for him, momentarily blinded by the lights.
“Right now, I stand here and you guys all watching me like I’m a celebrity,” he said. “But I’m not. The whole team celebrity, not one guy.”
The 22-year-old rookie was in demand after he scored two goals Thursday in the Capitals’ 5-1 win in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference first-round series against the New York Islanders, helping to give Washington a 3-2 series edge. English isn’t comfortable for the Russian yet, but he expertly deflected questions about himself to the team as a whole.
Kuznetsov scored the Capitals’ first goal of the game 9 minutes 5 seconds into the first period, punching in a rebound out of midair to tie the game at 1. To celebrate, he thrust his stick forward, sliding down to one knee and moving his other hand like he was rowing a boat.
He said in Russian that his heart jumped of happiness in that moment. He tried to control his emotions for the rest of the game, and the reaction for his second goal, which gave the Capitals a 4-1 lead in the third period, was more reserved.
Kuznetsov finished with two goals, an assist and a game-high seven shots on goal, becoming the third rookie in Capitals playoff history to record three points in a game.
“I feel well when we win the game,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s all I understand. I never talk about my game.”
Beaten out for the second-line center job by fellow rookie Andre Burakovsky over the summer, Kuznetsov surged as the season went on, finishing the regular season with 11 goals and 26 assists after recording five points in the last seven games. His lack of fluent English was a challenge in communicating with his teammates and coaches. When we got thrust into a second-line center battle this summer after not playing that position much back home in Russia, it was also an adjustment.
“He’s gotten used to the league,” Coach Barry Trotz said. “The first 40 games, it was a little bit of a mish-mash of up, down and not knowing the league quite as well. Maybe not as comfortable in his role. Then you sort of get through there, and there’s always a glass ceiling for young players.
“I think he got through that, and you’re seeing what he’s capable of. He’s a terrific player.”
Kuznetsov wanted to learn the North American sayings he always heard his teammates saying to each other, so defenseman Brooks Orpik taught him to say, “It’s not my first rodeo,” which is what Kuznetsov now uses all of the time.
Defenseman Karl Alzner said before the playoffs began that Kuznetsov could be a game-changer and “a guy that can win games for teams.” Forward Brooks Laich remembers watching Kuznetsov play in the World Junior Championships against the Canadian team, feeling both excited that Kuznetsov would one day play for Washington and frustrated that he helped beat Canada, where Laich is from.
“He’s really an underrated and underappreciated player on our team,” Laich said.
That’s how Kuznetsov would seem to prefer it. Asked which of his two goals was his favorite, Kuznetsov smiled.
“My favorite goal was when Alzner scored,” he said. “It’s the game-winner goal and it’s a big goal for us.”