After opening the season against division rivals, the New York Rangers, the Capitals would next face two of the best teams in the NHL. First up was the two-time defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning followed by a bout with the high-flying Colorado Avalanche. The end result – an impressive five out of six points for the Capitals.
A big part of the team’s excellent start has been the play of the Capitals top line, most notably the play of Alex Ovechkin (4g, 2a) and the play of Evgeny Kuznetsov (2g, 4a). The good start for Kuznetsov was much needed, because in some sense, this season could be seen as a fork in the road for him.
It’s possible Kuznetsov heard the cries of many of the Capitals fans, begging for him to be traded. It’s also possible he heard the trade rumors flying around the media since the end of last season. It seemed as if his time in Washington might be running out, as patience seemed to be wearing thin.
But to his credit, Kuznetsov reacted in the most positive fashion. He stayed in Northern Virginia all of last summer, working out and working on his game and showed up at Capitals training camp in great shape and ready to roll.
For Peter Laviolette, the change in Kuznetsov was very noticeable from the start of Capitals training camp.
“He’s been really good, had a great summer of training, came into camp and was really noticeable all through camp. I remember saying that as camp was going on. Really good in the exhibition games, and then the start to the season has been really good for him,” said Laviolette following the Capitals impressive 6-3 win over the Avalanche on Tuesday night.
After recording three assists on opening night against the Rangers, Kuznetsov started Tuesday night’s tilt with the Avalanche scoring the game’s first goal. Defenseman John Carlson sent an entry pass to him down the middle leading to a score that gave the Capitals the lead just 6:15 into the contest.
BIRD LAND! pic.twitter.com/CeksiXy20I
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) October 19, 2021
But the positive start for Kuznetsov and the Capitals was soon dampened by a turnover Kuznetsov caused on a Capitals power play. The turnover led to a short-handed goal by the Avalanche, tying the game, 1-1.
Compher made sure he was scoring here and NOTHING was stopping him pic.twitter.com/L1kcfk9kWg
— Mateo (@MateoGardella2) October 20, 2021
Following the turnover, Kuznetsov returned to the Capitals bench, but never heard a word from his teammates or his coaches. Kuznetsov said that meant a lot to him.
”The confidence always goes from the coaches and the teammates. I feel like I have a great relationship with the coaches and the teammates, and that always gives you a lot of confidence. That mistake I made on the power play, not even one guy say anything to me, because there is a trust, right. I appreciate it, I felt bad.”
Capitals head coach Peter Laviollete said he briefly chatted with Kuznetsov following the turnover.
“We chatted real quick on the bench, just about, turnovers happen. When you’re a creative player, those things will happen. And he had already had a big impact in the game prior to that. We talked about maybe something he could have done differently, defensively. And at that point he turned and said ‘I’m gonna get that one back.’” Kuznetsov would indeed get that one back.
The bird man is feeling it pic.twitter.com/33IApdNuMv
— Washington Capitals (@Capitals) October 20, 2021
“Just a really good game for him. His speed and his skating and his puck possession is really on point right now,” added Laviolette. Kuznetsov ultimately recorded two goals, an assist and led the Capitals in shots on goal with seven for the game.
By no means is Kuznetsov out of the proverbial woods, with only three games in the books so far this season. It’s early and his past issues aren’t far enough in the rear view mirror, yet. But the start is what he, the Capitals and Capitals fans everywhere desperately needed.
“It’s just three games, right? So basically of course I’m happy the way we play, happy with the personal performance. At the end of the day it’s still two points. It doesn’t matter how many points I’m gonna get, if we’re not gonna make the playoffs, then we’re not gonna be successful,” said Kuznetsov following Tuesday night’s game.
Kuznetsov and the Capitals are back on the ice on Thursday when they visit the Devils in New Jersey. Puck drop is set for just after 7:00 PM.
By Jon Sorensen