WASHINGTON, D.C. – Evgeny Kuznetsov has a small cluster of reporters in stitches.
The Washington Capitals’ other superstar Russian forward is trying to explain why he loves being matched up head-to-head against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, why he’s always admired Pavel Datsyuk.
He watches them close. He wants to learn from the very best and most creative players in the world.
“They still play hockey like the way I see hockey. It’s nice,” he says.
A reporter follows up: “How do you see hockey?”
“Total different than you,” Kuznetsov quips. He laughs. Everyone does.
The 24-year-old centre’s personality flourishes on the ice, too: in the way he skates (“Faster this year, for sure,” he says); in the way he finds passing lanes you didn’t know existed; and in how he celebrates big goals.
Kuznetsov’s joyful prancing bird celebration has already taken flight twice this post-season, in Game 3 versus the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1 and again here Thursday night, when he scored Game 1’s tying goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“I love to see the wings come out,” says teammate Tom Wilson. “That means he’s checked in and playing with fire. If he scores a big goal like that, I’m not going to tell him he can’t. Do whatever you want with your celebration.
“That’s just who Kuzy is. He’s an emotional catalyst. When he’s playing hard and he’s playing with emotion, that’s huge for our hockey club.”
Kuzentsov, who describes himself as “a gamer,” lifted the dance from the popular FIFA soccer video game.
Me: “Are you good at FIFA?”
Him: “Yes. Very good.”
“To celebrate when you score, you can press a couple buttons and do it,” Kuznetsov says.
Hold R1, press square or hold RB, press X, depending on your system.
The prancing bird is just the latest in a quiver of Kuzy cellies that has included the kayak, push-ups and playing dead.
The first bird sighting was at September’s World Cup, when Kuznetsov scored against Team North America.
“He does it whenever he feels like it,” Wilson says. “My dad always told me, ‘You score a goal, go line up at centre ice.’ That’s the culture I was brought up around. He’s got some celebrations that some people and the opposition don’t like, but our fans love it. I like it.”
During “Coach’s Corner,” Don Cherry criticized Kuznetsov for his flamboyance during the Toronto series. And there is speculation that his dance Thursday may have ruffled some Penguins’ feathers.
“They don’t care probably about that,” he waves off.
Uh, they might.
“You think so? I don’t care,” Kuzentsov smiles.
“I just want to win. If I score, maybe we see something happen. It is very important game today.”
Yep, the scoring is the critical half of the equation. What happens after the siren is (*ducks*) strictly for the birds.
“We’re happy with the goal,” Wilson says. “He’s a funny guy. If you knew him off the ice, you wouldn’t be so quick to judge him off his celebration.”
Fly, pelican, fly.