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.

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