Nate Schmidt thought it was an accident the first time Evgeny Kuznetsov skated behind the opposing team’s net with a defender following and then passed the puck backward to an expectant teammate for an easy tap-in goal. Kuznetsov preferred that, often calling the play “lucky.”
Washington Capitals Coach Barry Trotz once called it his “against-the-grain pass,” and CSN play-by-play announcer Joe Beninati coined it “the twister.” Alex Ovechkin has his patented one-timer on the power play, and Kuznetsov has this reserve wraparound of sorts.
“It’s him just waving his wand around,” Schmidt said.
Even Kuznetsov doesn’t call his signature move “lucky” anymore. His strength is his creativity — and the skill to pull off whatever he imagines — but after a breakout season with a team-leading 77 points, it’s harder for Kuznetsov to surprise defenses. He has been held without a goal since March 1, and his inventiveness is being tested as opponents adjust to stop some of his trademarks.
“That’s the way it is,” Justin Williams said. “You have moves, and once the video is out on it and other teams are reading it, he seems to switch up something. There’s always kind of a cat-and-mouse type thing that you can play with that, but the important thing is that he’s getting other teams thinking.”
In Game 1 of Washington’s first-round playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers, Kuznetsov flashed something new, bouncing a puck off the end boards back to himself before nearly setting up linemate Andre Burakovsky for a scoring chance directly in front of the net.
The confidence to attempt something like that waited until he became more established. He started on the fourth line last season, and his ice time dipped to less than 10 minutes per game in November. But comfort came with more trust from Trotz, who moved Kuznetsov into a top-six role before the playoffs. The postseason was his first foray into the spotlight, with five goals and two assists in 14 games, and he entered this year as the team’s no-doubt second-line center — the 20 goals and 57 assists were the exclamation point.
“When you’re playing, like, five or six minutes, you’re trying to play simple, like one or two passes and then you just put the puck in the net, you know?” Kuznetsov said. “When you play like 15 or 20 minutes, you can create something.”
Kuznetsov said the highlight-reel plays were the norm for him in the past, when he starred in the Kontinental Hockey League. “For me, the game is fun,” he said. At the suggestion that the backward pass from behind the net is now associated with him, Kuznetsov scoffs that it’s “a pretty old move” he saw all the time in Russia and that it’s not his.
“It’s his thing,” Burakovsky said. “There’s a lot of things that he’s doing out there that no one else in this league is capable to do.”
Burakovsky said that every time he and Williams see Kuznetsov skate behind the net with speed, the first play is a same-side pass, so either he or Williams will skate to the first post and try to be ready for the feed. Kuznetsov has pulled it off with both a backhand and forehand, so that keeps opposing team’s guessing, and he never breaks momentum. If he chooses not to pass it back, he can continue around the net and pass it up to a defenseman for a one-timer. At that point, Burakovsky or Williams is already at the net and in good position to potentially tip a shot.
“I think you’re seeing it around the league — everybody’s trying it after he started it,” Trotz said. “When you scout, you see it, but I guarantee you that they’ll get a couple of those, and then he’ll change it up. And they won’t.”
What makes it so tricky to defend? For one, Kuznetsov waits to send the puck back when he’s halfway around the back of the net, so you have to respect the threat of Kuznetsov following through with the wraparound or setting someone else up for a one-timer. As Schmidt said, “pick your poison.”
“You don’t want to get beat on the other side of the net,” Schmidt said. “That’s the worst part, if you let him go and you want to stay above the net when he goes behind. Because if he gets on the other side with time and space, he can hit a lot more guys coming in for one-timers, so you never really think of that play — until this year, and he does it all of the time.
“It really keeps you on the strong side of the post, which opens up more room for him on the back side. Even if it doesn’t work, then the guy will still stay over there even if he doesn’t do it next time. It just opens up more room for him on the opposite side, and that’s what you don’t want — you don’t want that guy with time and space.”