Why Kuznetsov has been a nightmare to stop during playoffs

The NHL’s best playmakers can also double for the most frustrating forwards for a simple reason: they love to pass.

Sometimes that drive to make that “pretty play” can drive a coach mad, particularly when that translates to vetoing more of a sure-thing in the form of a shot. As Russian Machine Never Breaks’ Ian Oland noted back in November, Barry Trotz sometimes got frustrated with Evgeny Kuznetsov‘s bias toward setting up his teammates.

Which, to be fair, is pretty understandable when Alex Ovechkin is usually on your left wing.

” … I think what it does when he does shoot, it will open up his wingers for him, too, because everyone is shading to the wingers right now because they think he’s just looking for his wingers,” Trotz said in November. “He’s just got to shoot a little bit more. Be more of a threat. He’s a threat gaining the zone. He’s a threat when he gets to the top of the circles and then he’s looking to dish a little bit. And he can shoot the puck. I use his stick, I know. He’s learned from me. No, he can really shoot it and he’s accurate.”

Well, Kuznetsov takes those lessons to heart during the most important time of the year, as he really ramps up his shooting during the postseason. That’s been most abundantly clear during a 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs run where Kuznetsov’s already set a new Capitals franchise record for points with 27 (including 12 goals).

Via Hockey Reference, Kuznetsov averaged 2.37 shots per game during the 2017-18 regular season, which already stands as an improvement compared to his career regular season average (2.06). Kuznetsov’s almost like a different player during this postseason run, however, generated a lethal 85 SOG over 22 games (3.86 SOG per contest).

Despite playing with an apparent injury, Kuznetsov decided to shoot on this 2-on-1 during Game 3, and scored with the sort of accuracy you’d expect from a top-flight sniper … which maybe he’s becoming?

Whenever people ponder stopping Alex Ovechkin from firing in goals from “his office,” they often forget that the threat of that bread-and-butter shot opens up a lot of opportunities for other players. You can see that in how deadly T.J. Oshie has been on the power play.

Kuznetsov being just about as apt to shoot as he is to pass makes for a goalie’s nightmare, and he really seemed to be making all the right calls during Game 3. Considering how nice this setup was, only for Marc-Andre Fleury to make a highlight reel save on Ovechkin:

Usually, Alex Ovechkin ranks far ahead of any other Capitals forwards when it comes to firing shots on net, yet during this run, Kuznetsov isn’t far behind him. Ovechkin leads the postseason with 90 SOG, only five more than Kuznetsov. (John Carlson is fourth with 76, while Jonathan Marchessault comes in at third with 82 despite playing 18 games to 22 for Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. More on Marchessault here.)

While Kuznetsov’s increased trigger-happiness seems to be in part a transformation, it’s interesting to note that he ramps up his shooting as something of a springtime tradition.

2014-15: 42 SOG in 14 GP (five goals, 3 SOG per game) after 1.59 SOG per game in the regular season.

2015-16: 39 SOG in 12 GP (one goal, 3.25 SOG per game) after 2.35 in regular season.

2016-17: 43 SOG in 13 GP (five goals. 3.3 SOG per game) after 2.07 in the regular season.

Perhaps Kuznetsov kicks things up another notch when every contest matters that much more. After all, an 82-game regular season is a serious grind. Maybe some of this comes down to matching up against the same players for about two weeks. Defenders may key on Ovechkin that much more, making the on-ice calculus that much more obvious for Kuznetsov. You’d have to think that some of it comes down to his confidence going through the roof lately.

Then again, it might just boil down to Kuznetsov really wants to break out that “eagle flapping wings” celebration.

Whatever the explanation may be, defenders can’t just clog up passing lanes when Kuznetsov carries the puck in dangerous situations. Not during the playoffs.

As much as the Capitals’ run has revolved around Ovechkin looking as spry and mobile as we’ve seen in years, the dominance of the top line also comes down to Kuznetsov being a dual threat more than ever before.

The Golden Knights, like others, haven’t exactly enjoyed this rendition of “pick your poison.” There might not be an easy answer for it, either.

MORE:

• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Oilers finally fire GM Chiarelli: report

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It is done.

It would appear that a loss to the last place Detroit Red Wings was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back. And man, that camel was a stubborn such and such.

The Oilers reportedly fired general manager Peter Chiarelli late Tuesday after another miserable outing in a 3-2 loss on Tuesday, a move that the club is expected to formally announce on Wednesday.

The move, of course, was a long-time coming.

Chiarelli had failed to move the team forward, and in the eyes of many Oilers fans, only moved the team in the opposite direction.

The Oilers went from the Western Conference Final to one of the most disappointing teams in 2017-18. Perhaps it was just a fluke. Surely, a team sporting the best player in hockey couldn’t be held down for too long.

Tuesday’s loss, Edmonton’s third straight and perhaps most embarrassing of the season, was proof even McJesus can’t save this bunch alone.

The Oilers own a 23-24-3 record, shockingly just three points out of a playoff spot and yet still likely insurmountable.

In his wake, a litany disastrous moves that may take a while to make right after Chiarelli’s three-and-a-half years in northern Alberta.

We’re reminded of Milan Lucic’s contract, that Griffin Reinhart deal and others that saw good players — Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle — leave with less than adequate players coming to replace them.

More recently, the trade of Drake Caggulia for Brandon Manning, and the very recent three-year, $13.5 million deal for Mikko Koskinen, one based on less than 40 NHL games, a career .905 save percentage, and equipped with a limited no-trade clause just so Chiarelli’s legacy will live on in Edmonton all the longer.

Yeah, there’s a mess on a few aisles that need a major cleanup.

But by who? What the future holds is anyone’s guess at the moment.

In the interim, Sportsnet’s John Shannon said a member of the Gretzky family will take the reins in some fashion.

Keith Gretzky will assume many of Chiarelli’s duties in the next few weeks, with Vice Chairman Bob Nicholson being more involved until they find a new GM.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Ken Hitchcock, who just took over as head coach earlier this season after the team fired Todd McLellan, take over the post at some point. He appears to want to stay in Edmonton.

It also wouldn’t be surprising to see some recycling, either. That’s kind of par for the course in Edmonton, re-using old parts hoping they work like new again. Canning a GM mid-season isn’t common.

That would be a shame, however.

Edmonton deserves a clean slate, from top to bottom. This isn’t going to be the first “rebuild.” It’s not the second or third either.

Connor McDavid deserves a better fate.

Oilers fans deserve a better team. God knows they’ve been starving for one for a long while.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Capitals’ Ovechkin to play Wednesday, sit first game after all-star break

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Alex Ovechkin will serve his punishment for missing the 2018 NHL All-Star Game in the Washington Capitals first game back after the break.

Ovechkin, who could have chosen to sit Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, is choosing to play instead as the Capitals look to end a six-game losing streak before an extended weekend off.

Ovi will now miss the team’s Feb. 1 meeting with the Calgary Flames.

The move appears to be purely based on where the Capitals are at the moment, and that’s in a rut. The six-game losing streak has a seen them fall out of first place with just three wins in their past 10 games.

Despite the back-to-back nature of Wednesday’s game — the Caps blew a two-goal third-period lead in a 7-6 overtime loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday — Ovechkin and the Caps will host a Toronto team that’s lost three straight and seven out of their past 10. The game, then, is a better opportunity to snap the winless skid. There isn’t a team hotter than the Calgary Flames, so it makes sense.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Hertl, Ovechkin trade hat tricks in 13-goal game

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Three stars

1. Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

In a game that featured 13 goals and two hat tricks, it was Hertl’s night that stood out amongst his peers.

Hertl scored one of the hat tricks and added an assist for his four-point night. Hertl was instrumental in the third period, scoring the goal to bring the Sharks to 6-5 and then assisting on Evander Kane‘s second of the game with one second left in the third period to send it to overtime.

In the extra hockey portion, Hertl finished the hat trick, scoring the game-winner at 1:48. It’s his second hat trick of the season, and second this month.

The Sharks won 7-6.

Here are the highlights:

2. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

It’s almost as if Ovechkin dangles the thought of someone catching him in the goal-scoring race, only to separate himself every time someone gets close. He’s just playing with those chasing him down.

Ovechkin notched another hat trick on Tuesday, scoring goals No. 34 thru 36 in the Capitals sixth straight loss. That’s 23 career hat tricks for Ovi, which are broken down here:

3. Luke Glendening, Detroit Red Wings

The Red Wings will head into their mandated week off on a high (and not in last place in the NHL) after Glendening scored a brace in a 3-2 win over the embattled Edmonton Oilers.

His first of the game came as he slipped in behind the Oilers defense and tapped in a shot past Mikko Koskinen. His second, the game-winner, came on a nice move to the net, slipping the puck past Koskinen.

Highlights of the night

The Hands of Kane:

Talk about cutting it close:

Factoids

Scores

Sharks 7, Capitals 6 (OT)
Coyotes 3, Senators 2
Blackhawks 3, Islanders 2 (SO)
Flames 3, Hurricanes 2 (SO)
Red Wings 3, Oilers 2


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

New contract, same result as Koskinen, Oilers fall to Red Wings

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A shiny new $4.5 million contract couldn’t help Mikko Koskinen stop the puck any better, nor could it help the Edmonton Oilers outscore their opponent on Tuesday night.

A day after the most puzzling contract extension in a long time, Koskinen allowed a couple softies to the basement-dwelling Detroit Red Wings as the Oilers lost 3-2 in another miserable effort on NBSCN.

All eyes were on Koskinen and the Oilers after Monday’s developments. After 40 minutes on Tuesday, Oilers fans were booing their team off the ice. Not a good sign, but perhaps not one that was all that surprising or unfamiliar.

Allowing goals like this was a big part of the problem for the Oilers, and Koskinen — despite the big-money deal — hasn’t been preventing too many of them lately.

Just listen to Ray Ferraro’s reaction on this one:

Koskinen actually made a couple of quality saves in the game, but then there was this sort of thing where he just chucked sound goalie positioning out the window.

After two periods, it was so bad that NBCSN’s Jeremy Roenick put the Oilers on blast.

“I’m just sitting here watching this game and shaking my head,” Roenick said. “I’m boggled that this is a professional hockey league team. The Edmonton Oilers are so bad. They can’t put two passes together. Their passing decisions. Their positioning defensively. They look, in all three zones, they looked confused. They have no idea where they are going. They are throwing hope-for passes up the ice hoping that they catch somebody in a rush where they can get an out-numbered situation. They might have good skaters, fast skaters, but their feet and their hands go so much faster than their brains. They have no idea what they are doing out there and it shows so much.

“You’ve got the Detroit Red Wings, and God bless them, the worst team in the National Hockey League by points [with] 43, and they look like the Stanley Cup champions compared to this Edmonton Oilers team. I can understand why Connor McDavid is as frustrated as he is. He’s on the only guy that’s working, the only guy doing something smart with the puck.

“We talk about hockey IQ, and some players with great hockey IQ. This team might have, from 18 players, the lowest hockey IQ I’ve seen in a long time, the way they’re playing this game. It’s embarrassing. I can understand why there were boos for this team going off the ice after the second period. It’s just awful to watch.”

The Oilers responded, scoring twice in the third period, including this one from Leon Draisaitl to give fans some hope.

It wouldn’t be enough, however.

Jimmy Howard continued his dominance against the Oilers, now 14-2-0 in his past 16 starts against Edmonton after making 32 saves.

Koskinen finished with 24 saves on 27 shots for another sub-.900 save percentage outing — his third straight. Koskinen has a .910 save percentage on the year and is .905 in his brief NHL career.

The Red Wings moved out of the NHL’s basement with the win while the Oilers lost their third straight and sixth in their past 10. The crazy thing is Edmonton is just three points back of a playoff spot as of Tuesday night.

The saga continues…


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck