The goal celebration matches the flash with which Evgeny Kuznetsov plays. He kicks up a leg, holds out his stick and lifts up his other arm, dangling his fingers overhead. He did it twice Tuesday night, all part of the Evgeny Kuznetsov Show at Capital One Arena.
Kuznetsov scored two goals in a 3-2 Washington Capitals win over the Ottawa Senators, and he has six points in his past three games. Kuznetsov’s two goals gave him 19 for the season, matching last season’s total with 18 games to go. He has 22 points in his past 22 games, often toying with opponents as he twirls around in the offensive zone with his dynamic skating and skill.
The win moved the Capitals back into first place in the Metropolitan Division after they had slipped to second following their 5-1 loss at Columbus on Monday.
“Overall, I love the way we’re playing,” Kuznetsov said. “Sometimes we not play our game, but that’s why we have 82 games, you know? We can play a bad game, but sometimes you need those games. You can sit and understand where you are, and after a couple wins, you get so, so emotional, but when you give up some bad goals and you lose the game, that’s when you can see how strong you are. I think we’re a strong team. Some of those tough losses make us stronger.”
The Capitals’ scoring has been top-heavy all season, led by captain Alex Ovechkin’s NHL-best 39 goals. Kuznetsov is second with his 19 tallies. He is known more for his passing ability, often frustrating fans with his hesitation to shoot, but his two most frequent linemates — wingers T.J. Oshie and Jakub Vrana — are enduring goal droughts, so Kuznetsov has become the main scoring threat on the second line.
After Oshie scored a career-high 33 goals last season, he has just 12 this season and hasn’t scored an even-strength tally since Dec. 22. Vrana’s last goal in all situations came Dec. 14.
“As long as we’re winning and our line is going, it doesn’t really matter who’s going to score,” Vrana said, “but Kuzy actually took it in his hands today.”
“I thought that line was outstanding today,” Coach Barry Trotz said.
Kuznetsov opened the scoring for the Capitals right after the team killed off a Matt Niskanen interference penalty. Niskanen sprang out of the box, creating a three-on-two with Oshie and Kuznetsov. Oshie fed Kuznetsov as he was driving to the net and, with Ottawa goaltender Mike Condon still facing Oshie as the puck landed on Kuznetsov’s stick, Kuznetsov shot into a half-open net for a 1-0 lead 15:16 into the game. Tom Wilson then scored 43 seconds into the second period for a two-goal cushion.
The Senators answered with a Mike Hoffman power-play goal that came immediately after a 91-second Ottawa two-man advantage expired. But with just 12 seconds left in the second period, Kuznetsov sped into the offensive zone, then around the net, and scored on a wraparound that knocked Condon off his skates.
“I tried to just get the puck in and then just skate,” Kuznetsov said. “No one was open, and then I saw the goalie was so close on me. You know, I try so many times, it never gets in. But today was a lucky day.”
Superstar Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson scored 3:14 into the third period, but Capitals goaltender Philipp Grubauer made nine of his 28 saves in the final period to seal the win.
Although Grubauer played the second and third period Monday night at Columbus — starter Braden Holtby was pulled after he allowed four goals on 16 shots in the first — Grubauer got the start Tuesday night. Trotz said Grubauer was always scheduled to start the second game of this back-to-back set, so he stuck with that plan. But in the past, when Holtby has had a start cut that short, he has typically started the next game. Trotz has acknowledged Holtby has had a “tough stretch” of late, having lost his past six starts.
In Grubauer’s seven appearances in February, he is 4-1-0 with a .932 save percentage and a 1.86 goals against average. Against Ottawa, he was peppered with 20 shots through two periods and confronted by two five-on-three opportunities. The Capitals were called for seven minor penalties in the game, yielding just the one power-play goal thanks to an impressive effort by the penalty kill.
“We sort of had each other’s back a little bit,” Trotz said. “We took some penalties. Warranted or not, we had to battle through it, and guys battled through it. We weren’t crying about it. We were just sort of trying to deal with it. I like that response.”