BOSTON — Dazzling skating and highlight-reel passing have become the norm for Evgeny Kuznetsov in his second full NHL season. His teammates have nicknamed him Harry Potter, owing to his wizardry with his stick. The magic continued Tuesday night in Boston.
“He makes some of those exceptional plays,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “When you see him on a daily basis, we sometimes forget how talented he is.”
The dream season for the Capitals has dovetailed with the blossoming of Kuznetsov. Washington improved to 29-7-3, holding firm as the Eastern Conference’s top team and moving past Dallas for the NHL points lead after the Stars lost to the New York Rangers. Kuznetsov has 13 goals and 24 assists, matching his point total for all of last season and putting him on pace to more than double his scoring.
“I think the whole team have bigger points, right?” Kuznetsov said. “I don’t really care about my game.”
With five minutes left in the first period, Kuznetsov made a pass from the right faceoff circle to the left that somehow slid untouched to the stick of Andre Burakovsky despite four Bruins in its path. Burakovsky lifted the perfect feed into the top of the net to give the Capitals a 1-0 lead.
The Capitals have won 22 of 23 games when scoring first, by far the league’s best win percentage in such circumstances.
“I was kind of shocked when it came to me because there was a lane, but there was a couple sticks between and he just got it under all of them,” Burakovsky said. “I was kind of shocked when I catch the puck, but I’m not really surprised that pass was coming. I was kind of prepared for it because I know what he can do.”
Burakovsky snapped a 25-game goal drought with a score against Buffalo last week. When Trotz moved Marcus Johansson to third-line center after an injury to Jay Beagle, it meant a promotion for Burakovsky from the fourth line to second-line left wing beside Kuznetsov.
Burakovsky’s first game in that role against the Columbus Blue Jackets was forgettable, but he shined playing with Kuznetsov on Tuesday night.
“When Kuz has the puck, mine and [Justin Williams’s] job is to just find open ice because we know Kuzy can give us the puck,” Burakovsky said. “As soon as we’re open for a half-second, the puck is going to be there.”
After his hands starred on Washington’s first goal, Kuznetsov showed what he can do with his legs on the second. Playing the half-wall position on the Capitals’ power play, he sped and spun up and down the boards before twirling back toward the middle, driving the net and launching a puck above goaltender Tuukka Rask’s left shoulder.
“He was the best player on the ice,” Trotz said.
That gave the Capitals a 2-0 lead with 7 minutes 20 seconds left in the second period, but the Bruins (20-14-4) answered less than three minutes later on an odd-man rush when Loui Eriksson’s wrister got by Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby. After losing two in a row for the first time this season, Washington allowed few chances through the first 40 minutes and the Bruins had just 14 shots on goal. The Capitals had 23 in that same span.
But Boston made a push in the third period, nearly doubling its shot total with 13.
Johansson scored to give the Capitals a two-goal lead, and Washington needed the breathing room.
Matt Niskanen took a holding penalty 32 seconds after Johansson’s goal, giving the Bruins’ top-ranked power play its fourth chance.
After the Washington penalty kill, ranked fifth in the league entering the game, stifled Boston in the first two periods, the Bruins broke through with a Patrice Bergeron power-play goal with 8:08 left in the game.
The Bruins then pulled their goaltender with just under two minutes remaining, but Holtby withstood the late barrage to finish with 25 saves and help the Capitals end their brief skid.
“No way we were going to lose today,” Kuznetsov said.
He made sure of it.