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In transition to NHL, Kuznetsov a quick study
29 марта 2014 года. The Washington Post


 Three weeks ago, when Evgeny Kuznetsov at long last arrived in Washington, Coach Adam Oates went out of his way to downplay expectations for the 21-year-old forward.

No amount of raw skill could prepare him to jump into the NHL, where physicality and grit take on a larger role than in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League. But through his first eight NHL games, Kuznetsov has shown an accelerated learning curve.

"He's maybe a little ahead of what I expected because I didn't expect much," Oates said. "The NHL is so different and I thought it would be a little overwhelming and it hasn't been so far, which I'm very happy about for him and for us. He's playing very solid."

There was never much question that Kuznetsov would provide an offensive spark. His talent as a puck-carrier, offensive vision and ability to set up teammates were all visible when the Capitals made him a first-round pick in 2010. The results have come quicker than many anticipated, though, as Kuznetsov has recorded one goal and five assists and is 2-for-3 in shootouts.

"He's a very skilled player. He's able to hold onto the puck and try to make plays," said Troy Brouwer, who has played on the second line with Kuznetsov in the past five games and sees his new teammate learning how the North American ice size speeds up play. "On smaller ice, time closes in on you a little bit quicker but I think he's figuring it out. He's realizing that he's got to make a play, a decision a little bit quicker, but he's got that skill set to be able to do that."

Kuznetsov started on the fourth line because Oates wanted to ease him into the NHL, but that lasted only three games. After a three-assist performance against Vancouver on March 14, he was moved up to the second line, where he's played since and seen his ice time increase to more than 17 minutes per night.

The additional ice time, combined with steady shifts on the power play, have helped Kuznetsov feel more comfortable after each game. While he may be new to the NHL and the Capitals, he has a complete appreciation for the situation he landed in with a team in desperate search of wins to reach the playoffs.

At "this time we need to score on power play, whose goal it [is] doesn't matter. We have to score goal," Kuznetsovsaid, adding that the Capitals' power play system is similar to the one he played with the KHL's Traktor Chelyabinsk. "We have nine games [left], right? We need to win straight nine games. We need goals."

What stands out to Oates is Kuznetsov's ability to reel in his skill and protect the puck by making smart decisions to maintain possession.

"He's playing pretty much East Coast hockey, NHL hockey. He realizes there are times you've got to grind and I've been very impressed with that," Oates said. "There was one game really early, I think maybe it was his second game, where he tried this miracle pass in the second period where it got picked off and it went the other way. I haven't really seen that since. When you're touted and you're supposed to be this great stick-handler, puck possession guy - it's still our league, there's no room for that - it's like he's recognized that."

Hillen questionable

Defenseman Jack Hillen (upper body injury) practiced Friday but might not be ready to face Boston today at Verizon Center. If Hillen is unable to play, John Erskine will get back in the lineup for his first game since March 5 at Philadelphia. He's been a healthy scratch in the past seven games. 

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