By Kristina Rutherford in Pittsburgh and Washington
By Kristina Rutherford in Pittsburgh and Washington
For Evgeny Kuznetsov, NHL ice is a blank canvas. And the lightning-fast centre’s freewheeling creativity is a big reason the Washington Capitals have their best shot at a Stanley Cup in two decades.

Alex Ovechkin dishes a pass up ice and slows his pace as he follows the play, mostly because, Evgeny Kuznetsov is already gone. After skating into the pass, the Washington Capitals centreman streaks up the middle between a pair of Pittsburgh defencemen, including Kris Letang, who reaches and falls and loses his stick. Kuznetsov is still moving at top speed when he pulls the puck from backhand to forehand, then slides it between goalie Matt Murray’s legs. His arms shoot up in celebration as PPG Paints Arena falls deadly quiet, aside from the yelling and screaming of a bunch of Capitals at ice level.

Then comes the fowl transformation. Kuznetsov skates along the boards, lifts his right leg and flaps his arms, even makes bird noises. His daughter, Ecenia, who turns three later this month, loves it when Dad does that. Kuznetsov’s time as a bird is short-lived, though, because his teammates are jumping on him. The Capitals have done it — finally.

The play, the finish and the celebration that saw Washington slay the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions was oh-so-Kuznetsov — seemingly effortless, highly-skilled and creative. His seventh goal of these playoffs, in overtime in Game 6, knocked an elephant-sized monkey off the long-beleaguered Capitals’ backs: Washington not only eliminated Pittsburgh, but after bowing out in the second round against Sidney Crosby and his band of stars in two straight campaigns, the Capitals are in the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in two decades.

“If he wants to be a face of the NHL — if he really wants to — he can.”

It’s a first for Ovechkin, for Nicklas Backstrom, for goalie Braden Holtby, for Kuznetsov — the list goes on. And the thing about that last player, Washington’s least-known star, is that as he’s developed into the Capitals’ first-line centreman, he’s embodied some of the key traits of his team: Both are blessed with otherworldly talent, but are often overshadowed — the team, much to its chagrin, by the Penguins; Kuznetsov, not that you’ll hear him complain, by his linemate, Ovechkin, who happens to be the league’s best pure goal-scorer. But with Washington one step closer to a first-ever Stanley Cup, the hockey world will be hearing a lot more about the Capitals and the fun-loving player teammates call ‘Kuzy.’ “If he wants to be a face of the NHL — if he really wants to — he can,” says Washington head coach, Barry Trotz. And heck, in recent years you could make the same case for the Capitals.

Kuznetsov's overtime winner in Game 6 freed the Capitals of their Penguins demons and put Washington in the Conference Final for the first time in two decades.

It was partway through the 2014–15 season and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk skated over to Trotz for a chat after a morning skate ahead of a game against Washington. The pair had gotten to know one another over the years and loved talking hockey. This morning’s topic was a rookie named Evgeny Kuznetsov.

“How’s your young Russian guy?” Datsyuk asked.

“You know, he’s doing really good,” Trotz said. “But he’s not Pavel Datsyuk.” Datsyuk laughed. “This might sound strange,” Trotz continued, “but could you talk to him? I want him to play more like you.”

What coach wouldn’t, really? But Trotz was keying in on a specific element of Datsyuk’s game: The ability to stay in the fight and create offence from defence; to pick a pocket, turn around and get a scoring chance. Trotz had already enlisted a few Capitals to pull up clips of Datsyuk on YouTube, so Kuznetsov could see what he meant. Still, the coach had watched No. 92 give up on the puck more than a couple times that season, then made him a healthy scratch.

Trotz figured a chat from Datsyuk himself could do the trick. And the Red Wings star agreed to talk to Kuznetsov, who’d long admired his fellow Russian with the magic hands. “He was getting the message,” Trotz says, recounting the story the day before his team earned that fourth win against Pittsburgh. “He wanted to stay in the lineup, and so he started doing it — those plays didn’t die.”

Kuznetsov broke out near the end of that rookie season, and in the first round of the playoffs, he scored the Game-7 winner against the Islanders, picking up a pass and enduring a hard slash or two, evading two defenders as he held onto the puck and waited just long enough to put it top shelf, before dropping into a couple of long fist pumps. “It was a play that he kept alive, took it to the hole and he scored,” Trotz says. “That’s where I wanted him to get to.”

“He’s still young and he’s getting better and better. And to say he keeps getting better and better is pretty scary, because he’s an elite guy already.”

He’s continued to grow since that rookie campaign, development that has hardly gone unnoticed among Kuznetsov’s teammates. “Getting used to the NHL, the demands without the puck, he’s worked hard at it,” says veteran defender, Matt Niskanen, who signed with the Capitals ahead of Kuznetsov’s rookie season. “He’s gotten a lot better and that’s only helped his offensive game, too, because then he has the puck more.”

“He’s still young and he’s getting better and better,” adds fellow seasoned blueliner, Brooks Orpik. “And to say he keeps getting better and better is pretty scary, because he’s an elite guy already.”

Kuznetsov is coming off a career-high regular season that saw him put up 83 points, 19th in the league, while centring that top unit with Ovechkin and big body Tom Wilson. And for the second time in his career, Kuznetsov registered more than 50 assists — his 56 ranking T-14 league-wide — and many weren’t your run-of-the-mill helpers. “He’s really creative at finding teammates, at getting them the puck in unusual ways,” Niskanen says. “He’s unconventional that way.” Wilson chalks it up to what he calls “a crazy hockey IQ.”

“No matter what, the puck can come to you,” winger Devante Smith-Pelly explains. “He goes around the net, no-look passes. He crosses the blue line, no-look passes. You definitely have to be looking.”

The first year Niskanen played with Kuznetsov, he learned that lesson early on. “I thought, ‘There’s no way he’s going to pass to me,’ then all of a sudden it’s on my stick,” he says.

For further illustration, the Minnesota-born defender recalls one pass in particular that set up a goal he scored earlier this year: “Most guys would have just tried a conventional forehand pass, but he moved a guy before he did it,” Niskanen says. “He faked behind the back, went a couple more strides, held the goalie, held the defenceman and fed me a forehand pass. I had a wide-open net because he did that. You give me that pass [as early in the play as] most guys would have and it’s a difficult shot, it’s probably not going in.”

Now in his fourth full season with the Capitals, Kuznetsov’s creativity no longer catches teammates off-guard. “I mean, he still amazes me, and all the guys, all the time,” Orpik says, “but I’m not surprised, just based on his personality. He doesn’t care what people think of him and he’s a pretty free spirit, so his imagination is top-notch.”

Sometimes it leads him to celebrate like a bird; other times to dipsy doodle and perhaps squander a chance — or cash one with added flair. In late March, against New York, Kuznetsov was behind the net when he noticed that Rangers goalie Ondrej Pavelec had left a top corner open. He picked up the puck on his blade and attempted a lacrosse goal, lifting it in the air and trying to stuff it into the corner. He just missed. “We told him that would have been so sick if he scored that way,” says a grinning Smith-Pelly, ahead of Game 4 against Pittsburgh. “I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if he did it tonight. That’s just him: He’s super creative, and he’s so good that he can try things in games that me, personally, I would never, ever try.”

Those opportunities for creativity are what make hockey fun for Kuznetsov. The six-foot-two, 204-pounder with the short blonde hair and the well-maintained playoff scruff is thankful that his creativity was welcomed from the get-go in Washington. “Sometimes young guys come to the team and they scared to try anything because they think if they gonna make mistake, they gonna get sent back and never get a chance to play in NHL again,” he says, dressed in a sweaty grey Capitals t-shirt, shorts and long white tube socks after a morning skate in Washington. “It can be hard. I’m really lucky when I come here, they let me do a lot of good stuff. Thank God it’s all working, you know?”

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Part of his creativity involves studying opponents. “You don’t have to be shy — look for them, what they trying to do and try to do the same thing, even if they 18 or 20 years old, it doesn’t matter. Or, it’s Sidney Crosby, it doesn’t matter. You have to learn from those guys still,” Kuznetsov says.

“I’ve never been the big scorer guy,” he continues. “I can trade couple nice passes [and an] unbelievable goal for zero points for me personally. That’s how I enjoy the game. Sometimes you come after the game into the locker room, you think, ‘Oh, it’s nice, we won 3-1.’ Whatever, it doesn’t matter. If you enjoy the result but you don’t enjoy the game? That’s always bad. You want to enjoy the energy, the mental and other things, good plays.

“You have to think every day: I have to get better because they play better than me. That’s how I think it should be.”

Kuznetsov is even known to apply his free-spirited and imaginative approach to post-goal celebrations.

Kuznetsov was 22 years old when he spent his first full season in Washington, after five seasons in the KHL and a life spent mostly in his hometown of Chelyabinsk, where he didn’t learn a lick of English. During that rookie season, a teammate might’ve asked, say, where he picked up a move he’d busted out in practice. “It’s not my first rodeo,” Kuznetsov would fire back, in broken English, with a grin. Every guy in the dressing room would lose it. The context of the question never mattered, just the random one-liner he came back with. “He was always picking my brain for funny phrases,” Orpik says. And though the defenceman figures Kuznetsov must have taken English classes given the speed with which he picked up the language, Kuznetsov swears he never did. He says he just listened to people in the dressing room, on the streets and on TV.

In early media interviews, he had a foolproof plan: “Most of the time I just guess on my answers,” Kuznetsov shrugs. “If I see they doesn’t get my answer, I just give them second option.” Genius.

Other than his love and talent for hockey, very little about Kuznetsov’s early life was geared toward preparing him for this one. He simply had no interest in the world’s top league. “I have no idea about the NHL [as a kid],” he says. “I knew all the best players played there, but overall I don’t care about that when I was young. When I was 17, we don’t have computers, Internet — we didn’t care about that.”

“He’s super creative, and he’s so good that he can try things in games that me, personally, I would never, ever try.”

That same year, during the 2009–10 season, he made his local KHL team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, and put up nine points in 35 games. In his first playoff series, the kid played the hero. “We’re down 3-0 in the series against a very good team. It’s late in the game and I scored a goal and we forced a Game 5,” he says. “It’s one of the biggest memories for me. I was 17, still wearing the mask.”

Kuznetsov loved playing on that team, alongside guys like Ravil Gusmanov and Andrei Nikolishin, who are both 20 years his senior. “We get so, so, so close to those guys. They treated me like a son because the both of them almost have a kid the same age as me,” he says. “It’s very special for me; they teach me a lot of stuff.”

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He’s not sure when he realized he could play in the NHL, or that he might want to, but at the end of that rookie season in Chelyabinsk, the Capitals drafted him 26th overall. The following year, he had a breakout performance at the World Junior Championship, scoring in overtime in the quarterfinal and contributing three assists in a comeback win over Canada for gold. “I think after we won in Buffalo, he get higher and higher, his skill level,” says Dmitry Orlov, Kuznetsov’s teammate, then and now. “You can see he start to be really a good hockey player. He got the confidence.”

And at age 21, during his fifth season with Chelyabinsk, that confidence grew stronger still when Kuznetsov embraced “a bigger role,” he says. He put up 44 points in 51 games before joining the Capitals near the end of their 2013–14 campaign. He knew “absolutely nothing” about Washington at the time, he says, aside from the fact that it was the capital, and that there were a few other Russians on the team. He made the move anyway, tough as it was to leave his family and friends behind. “I start to understand more about the NHL and hockey is more and more important for me,” Kuznetsov says. “I want to play with the best.”

Kuznetsov spent five seasons with his hometown team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, in the KHL and didn't initially see the need to jump to the NHL. Eventually, though, “I want to play with the best," he says.

Back-up goalie Philipp Grubauer snaps his fingers. Smith-Pelly claps his hands. Niskanen and Orlov shake their heads. This is how teammates react as they attempt to describe Kuznetsov’s speed.

“Sometimes guys have to work really hard to be fast and get going, he just” — snap! — “has that something,” Grubauer says. “I’ve never seen a guy who can skate like this.”

“He’ll get the puck in the middle and it looks like he’s standing still, then all of a sudden” — clap! — “he’s past the D-man. I don’t know how he does it,” says Smith-Pelly. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone skate like that, look like he’s not moving at all, just floating by guys.”

“The guys say on the team I’m not even move my feet, but somehow I get past the guys. I don’t know how to explain.”

Niskanen says in 11 years in the league, he’s seen only a handful of players with Kuznetsov’s ability, Connor McDavid and Nathan MacKinnon among them. “He can maintain a speed without taking really hard strides, which, a guy like me, and most other guys, really have to work to maintain their speed,” he says. “Some guys can really sprint in a straight line, but they have to work to do it, and as soon as they stop their feet they slow way down. Kuzy can maintain that.”

According to Orlov, Kuznetsov in motion creates an optical illusion. “You look and you always think he’s not fast,” the defender says, “but he has special gliding and he can beat you one-on-one so easily. You think you got him, but you don’t. His movements, I think this makes him a special player.”

Orlov’s description makes Kuznetsov laugh, because he hears it from teammates all the time. “The guys say on the team I’m not even move my feet, but somehow I get past the guys,” he says, throwing up his hands. “I don’t know how to explain.”

Minutes after he once again displayed that speed and scored that Game 6 goal, the biggest of his NHL career, Kuznetsov stands in the visitor’s dressing room in Pittsburgh, smiling. It doesn’t matter who scored, it was a team effort, he says. And then he follows that with a simple description that every one of his long-suffering teammates in Washington can agree with. “This feels very nice — you keep playing hockey,” he says. “Unbelievable.”

The Capitals are here, at last. And now, same as their lightning-quick centreman, all that remains to be seen is just how much further they can go.

Photo Credits

Photo Illustration and Design by Drew Lesiuczok
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images; Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo; Patrick McDermott/NHLI/Getty Images; Yury Kuzmin/KHL Photo Agency/Getty Images