Who else should put an exclamation point on this last leg of the Washington Capitals’ homestand but Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team’s best player since it returned from its bye week at the start of the month? He patiently maneuvered around the net, pulling the Los Angeles Kings’ Jonathan Quick toward him before shooting the puck over the sprawling goaltender with 4:47 to play.
That marked Kuznetsov’s second goal and fourth point of the game, a 6-4 Capitals win against the Kings on Monday night in Capital One Arena. In the past six games, Kuznetsov has six goals and six assists, and he powered Washington as it built its game back up by securing nine of a possible 12 points on this homestand. The Capitals remain in second place in the Metropolitan Division, three points back of the New York Islanders.
“We wanted to play a little bit better hockey — actually, a lot better hockey — after the break,” Coach Todd Reirden said. “This homestand was pivotal for us to gather as many points as we could. It didn’t go perfect, but at least we were able to bank some points here before we go on the road.”
With Washington’s roster finally free of injuries and suspensions and the full team available Monday for just the second game all season, the Capitals used a near-identical lineup to the one from last year’s Stanley Cup finals. The two differences were backup Pheonix Copley in net instead of starter Braden Holtby and Nic Dowd centering the fourth line instead of Jay Beagle, who signed with Vancouver in the offseason. And with Kuznetsov on a scoring tear, Reirden reunited him with wingers Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, Washington’s top line in the playoffs a season ago.
“He’s really commanding and really deserving more opportunity,” Reirden said Monday morning, but the move seemed to have as much to do with Ovechkin as it did Kuznetsov. Although Ovechkin had racked up four assists in his past four games, he hadn’t scored. Because center Nicklas Backstrom is typically tasked with playing against the opponent’s top line in a shutdown role, Reirden figured separating Ovechkin from Backstrom would enable the former to potentially take advantage of an easier matchup.
“That line created a lot today, and it’s a line I’m very comfortable with and we’ve had success with last year as well and different points this year,” Reirden said. “It was good to see them have some success and score some big goals and answer back different times during the game.”
Ovechkin got on the score sheet just 3:07 into the game, when the Capitals were on an early power play thanks to Michael Amadio’s hooking infraction. Ovechkin collected a pass from Kuznetsov low in the left faceoff circle and beat Quick from the sharp angle. But Washington surrendered that 1-0 lead just 1:43 later when Derek Forbort’s fantastic backhand, between-the-legs feed found Austin Wagner right in front of the net for the tying tally.
Allowing opponents quick responses has been an issue for the Capitals this season, and it happened again in the final five minutes of the first period. Winger Brett Connolly scored on his own rebound, his third goal in the past two games, but just 21 seconds later, defenseman Dmitry Orlov went to the penalty box for hooking. Los Angeles’s Tyler Toffoli then tied the score once more with a one-timer from the slot on the power play.
Then, after an extended shift 3:42 into the second period, Los Angeles took the lead with an Oscar Fantenberg point shot. This time it was on Washington to respond, and whenever the team has needed a big goal during this homestand, Kuznetsov has delivered. He won an offensive-zone draw and, after Orlov’s point shot caromed to Wilson, Kuznetsov punched in the rebound of Wilson’s shot less than three minutes after Fantenberg had put Los Angeles ahead.
“I feel like the goalies play good right now,” Kuznetsov said. “They can save first shot, but if you can get the rebound or you can get deflection, that just make it tougher on the goalie.”
That first line sparked the Capitals again less than four minutes later. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov assisted on defenseman Christian Djoos’s go-ahead goal, a one-handed poke check that deflected off the crossbar and into the net. Jakub Vrana’s one-timer 13:09 into the period gave Washington a two-goal lead, a nice change of pace after a homestand full of nail-biters, every previous game decided by one goal and two going to overtime.
Wagner cut the Capitals’ deficit to one with 9:35 left, but Kuznetsov’s second goal and his signature birdlike celebration followed, a last salute to the home crowd before the team embarks on a six-game road trip that begins Tuesday at Columbus. And although he and the team both found their game during this 11-day stretch at Capital One Arena, Kuznetsov in particular is ready for a change of scenery.
“That’s perfect,” he said. “We finally go for the road. It’s too much time we spent at home.”