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|Patience with Kuznetsov beginning to pay off
17 ìàðòà 2015 ãîäà. Chuck Gormlye. CSNWashington.com
The Capitals’ power play was about to expire when Evgeny Kuznetsov hit the blue line with a head of steam, Joel Ward on his right and Curtis Glencross on his left.
The Buffalo Sabres’ defense retreated, almost daring the 22-year-old center to shoot. He did, and in the blink of an eye, the puck was rippling the net behind goaltender Anders Lindback, giving the Capitals a 3-2 lead.
“I wait until somebody come, but nobody come,” Kuznetsov said after scoring the go-ahead goal and the shootout game-winner to earn the Honest Abe award in the Caps’ 4-3 win over the Sabres Monday night at First Niagara Center.
“Ovi yell at me every day. He tell me if I want to score I have to shoot. He not yell at me, he teach me. I accept this and I like this. I like when teachers teach me good stuff.”
Alex Ovechkin is not the only one who has been encouraging Kuznetsov to shoot more. The Capitals’ coaching staff has been making the same request and in his past four games Kuznetsov has been heeding their advice with 17 shots, including a career-high eight against the Sabres.
“I thought he was our best player by a wide margin,” Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s got a really good release and we want him to shoot more. When he hangs on [to the puck] a little too long, goaltenders are too good and coverage sort of collapses on you.”
At the start of this season, his first full year in the NHL, Kuznetsov admits he was guilty of waiting for plays to develop, only to see them fall apart because of his indecision. When his play dipped in a loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 22, Kuznetsov was dropped from the second line to the fourth, where he logged fewer than 12 minutes a game and was a minus-5 in four straight games.
Before the Capitals’ 3-1 loss to the Rangers on March 11, Trotz was asked about Kuznetsov’s development.
“He’s coming,” Trotz offered. “Would it be where I want it to be? Probably not.”
“Everybody makes mistakes, this is hockey life,” Kuznetsov said last week. “I was down for three or four games, but coaches talk to me and show me video. It’s tough when you make a couple mistakes and you don’t score. You want to score goals but you want to help the D. I’ve got to be better on D.”
When center Jay Beagle, who was centering a second line with Glencross and Troy Brouwer, was injured in the Caps’ 3-1 loss to the Rangers on March 11, Kuznetsov returned to the second line and has responded with two goals and two assists in his last four games.
“He’s putting himself in areas to shoot the puck,” Caps defenseman Mike Green said. “As opposed to playing the perimeter and wheeling around he’s maybe cutting to the middle or putting it through the D-man’s skates and shooting it through, much like Ovi does. It’s worked well for him he past couple games.”
Kuznetsov, who has eight goals, 21 assists and is a plus-5, also appears to be adapting better to the physical side of the game. In Sunday night’s win over the Bruins he went nose-to-nose with Brad Marchand after getting his stick up against Patrice Bergeron along the boards.
“He’s got all the talent in the world and he’s shown it,” Caps defenseman John Carlson said. “I think he’s been playing great lately. He’s trying to shore up parts of his game. He makes mistakes just like everybody else. I make five mistakes, 10 mistakes a game. But I think he’s shown he can take care of the puck and he can be aggressive. He’s not going to lay anybody out on the forecheck, but he’s shown he can be aggressive and get in there and be effective.”
Ward said Kuznetsov is slowly overcoming difficulties with the English language and has become more assertive on the ice, where he often directs Ward where to go on the power play, and off the ice, where his humor is starting to show through.
“Kuzy’s come a long way for sure,” Ward said. “He’s an undercover pretty funny guy. His English is surprisingly pretty good and he’s definitely taking on a bigger role than when he first got there. Like anybody else coming to a new country he was a little tentative and nervous at the start.”
Kuznetsov appears to overcoming those nerves at just the right time. On his shootout goal against Lindback he showed patient precision, deliberate snaking from right to left before snapping a shot past Lindback’s right side.
The shootout goal was Kuznetsov’s fifth in eight tries, the most among all Capitals shooters.
“This shootout is like poker,” Kuznetsov said after the game. "If you don't have a card, you'll never win.”
Kuznetsov said he holds fond memories of Buffalo, where he dominated the 2011 World Junior Championships with six goals and seven assists in six games, leading Russia to a gold medal.
That performance sparked the imagination of Capitals fans who had to wait three more years to see Kuznetsov finally pull on a Capitals sweater. Now, one year into his career with the Capitals, Kuznetsov is starting to look like a player who could be an X factor in a tight playoff series.
“He’s a special player,” Ward said, “and you can’t have enough of them.”