Evgeny Kuznetsov’s impact on Capitals, Stanley Cup Final grows

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WASHINGTON — The messages to Tom Wilson have been short and to the point from Evgeny Kuznetsov: keep your stick on the ice and I’ll find you.

Late in the first period of the Washington Capitals’ 6-2 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4, Kuznetsov and Wilson did a little cycling in the corner to the right of Marc-Andre Fleury. Wilson dropped the puck to Kuznetsov, who then started driving toward the Vegas net before firing off a pass to Wilson, who buried his opportunity to make it 2-0.

This is the Kuznetsov we’ve grown to appreciate. The one with 185 career assists. The one who can find seams between sticks and skates and hit your tape to create a scoring chance.

During these playoffs, however, we’ve seen a different Kuznetsov of sorts. He’s been shooting more, having fired off 87 shots in 23 games. Those shots are going in, as evidenced by his 12 goals. And his passes are still finding the tapes of his teammates, which resulted in four assists in Game 4 and a playoff leading 31 points, which is also a Capitals franchise record.

[Why Kuznetsov has been a nightmare to stop during playoffs]

“He’s a pretty dynamic player. He’s one of the best players in the world,” said Wilson. “He finds guys like no one else really does. He has a huge affect on every game.”

As you might expect from a guy who’s always had a “pass first” mentality, he’s more satisfied handing out assists than scoring goals. Whatever helps the teams.

“I can shoot a couple times, but I saw a couple guys were open,” Kuznetsov said about his four-assist night. “I really feel that keeps the goalie a little bit in a tough situation when guy is in a good position, but he’s still looking for the pass.”

His four assists Monday night made him only the fifth NHL player in the last 31 years to do so in a Stanley Cup Final game, and the first since Joe Sakic in 1996. With his 31 playoff points, he’s also only the sixth player since 1996 to reach that mark. His Conn Smythe Trophy resume is looking quite good.

Kuznetsov has grown into a focal point of the offense, having finished in the top three in scoring on the team in each of the past three seasons. The Capitals drafted him in the first-round in 2010, but had to wait until late in the 2013-14 season before he made his NHL debut. He spent those years in the KHL developing into an all-star, winning gold at the IIHF World Junior Championship and IIHF World Championship before finally arriving in North America.

It didn’t take long for Kuznetsov to prove his worth on the Capitals and show that he was really worth the wait. 

“People don’t really know him as well as Ovi and you’re seeing the talent of Kuzy,” said Capitals head coach Barry Trotz. “You’ve seen the greatness of Ovi over the course of his career to this point. I think Kuzy’s just getting better and better. He’s taken a bigger piece of this team. He came year one when I was here and was just learning to play the North American game, how important it was to keep pucks alive. It’s a different game. It’s small space. You have to do that. Over in Europe, it’s a little bit more of a regroup, sort of a soccer mentality, if you will. It’s a little slower pace and he’s learning to adjust. 

“As he’s grown as player in North America, he’s gotten better and he’s taken a bigger piece of our team every year. I think he’s one of the top centermen in the league now.”

Stanley Cup Final schedule
Game 1 Monday, May 28 – Golden Knights 6, Capitals 4
Game 2 Wednesday, May 30 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 2
Game 3 Saturday, June 2 – Capitals 3, Golden Knights 1
Game 4 Monday, June 4 – Capitals 6, Golden Knights 2 (Capitals lead series 3-1)
Game 5 Thursday, June 7 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 6* Sunday, June 10 – Golden Knights at Capitals, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
Game 7* Wednesday, June 13 – Capitals at Golden Knights, 8 p.m. ET (NBC)
* = If necessary

MORE:
• NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub
• Stanley Cup Final Guide

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.