VANCOUVER — Evgeny Kuznetsov’s second goal Friday night ripped past Vancouver Canucks goaltender Jacob Markstrom with mere tenths of a second to spare before the end of the second period. It was a skilled goal that Capitals coach Todd Reirden said provided the swing in momentum in a lopsided game. The wrister from the circle also exemplified the center’s ability to remain calm and patient before seizing his opportunity.
Kuznetsov’s tally in the middle period led the Capitals’ four-goal comeback en route to winning 6-5 in a shootout Friday against the Canucks, but it was his first goal at 3:18 in the first that started to turn heads. His hit on Canucks’ Micheal Ferland on the boards led to a Vancouver turnover, which ended up on the speedy stick of Jakub Vrana, who dished it to a streaking Kuznetsov for a wrist shot from close range. Kuznetsov had a game-high seven shots on goal.
“I was just in the right moment and perfect position when guys just give it to me,” Kuznetsov said. “You know it felt like I shoot a little bit more than before, and I think that’s it for a couple games, for sure.”
Reirden called the game Kuznetsov’s “strongest of the year.” With the team having to overplay some of its players in the team’s 4-3 overtime loss to Edmonton Thursday night due to some missed reads and poor play in crucial situations, Reirden knew coming into Vancouver for the second leg of a back-to-back would be a challenge.
Knowing how easily Kuznetsov skates and creates on the ice, he pulled Kuznetsov aside before the Friday’s start and informed him of the plan: “Be ready to play a quite a bit tonight.” He finished the game with 21:58 of ice time, the most of any forward on the team. Reirden was double-shifting him throughout, playing him around the wing at the end of the second, which led to the goal at the buzzer. In a game in which Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson were stifled, it was Kuznetsov’s play that carried the team into their impressive third period.
“He had a really strong game, and [I’m] very happy for him,” Reirden said. “Obviously, [he’s] been through a lot and continuing to improve and get better.”
While Kuznetsov’s offensive game once again showed up on the stat sheet, it is Kuznetsov’s two-way game that has Reirden impressed. In an area that was lacking last year, despite Kuznetsov scoring 76 points (21 goals, 51 assists), he was streaky, with stretches when you couldn’t remember seeing the skilled center on the ice. Defensively, Kuznetsov needed work, and in the offseason, Reirden starting seeing just that.
Reirden said Kuznetsov’s mindset going into the draw is something that has vastly changed, and by looking at some of the decisions Kuznetsov is making on the ice, there’s been a shift with seeing him make those decisions defensively on the right side of puck. He’s in the correct position to be an asset in the back end.
Even when Kuznetsov wasn’t scoring in the previous four games for the Capitals prior to Friday night, Reirden was happy with how the Russian center was focusing more on that aspect of his game, including faceoffs. Through 10 games, Kuznetsov has a faceoff percentage of 48.5%. Last year he ended at 38.7 percent.
“I think right now it is important to him,” Reirden said. “It allows him to have the puck more often, and he is so dangerous when he has the puck that I think it has allowed his mind to get him more possession time.”
Kuznetsov said he wanted to try and focus more on the details in his game in the defensive zone this season, working to maintain consistency on both ends of the ice, even when pucks aren’t going in his favor. He has five goals and four assists through 10 games. After wanting to let his play on the ice speak for him after being suspended for the first three games of the season due to “inappropriate conduct,” Kuznetsov is starting to find his spark.
“Yeah, I mean, you always believe,” Kuznetsov said. “It doesn’t matter how games go, you will be better next period.”