Washington — Who else should put an exclamation point on this last leg of the Washington Capitals’ homestand but Evgeny Kuznetsov, the team’s best player since it returned from the bye week at the start of the month for this stretch of games. He patiently maneuvered around the net, pulling Los Angeles Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick toward him before shooting the puck over him.
That marked Kuznetsov’s second goal and fourth point of the game, a 6-4 Capitals win. In the past six games, Kuznetsov has six goals with six assists, and he has been Washington’s best player as it built its game back up with nine out of a possible 12 points on this homestand. The Capitals remain in second place in the Metropolitan Division, just three points back of the New York Islanders.
“We wanted to play a little bit better hockey — actually a lot better hockey — after the break,” coach Todd Reirden said. “This homestand was pivotal for us to gather as many points as we could. It didn’t go perfect, but at least we were able to bank some points here before we go on the road.”
With Washington’s roster finally free of injuries and suspensions, the full roster available for just the second game all season, the team used a near-identical lineup to the one from the Stanley Cup Final. The two differences were Pheonix Copley in net and Nic Dowd centering the fourth line instead of Jay Beagle, who signed with the Vancouver Canucks as a free agent in the offseason. And with Kuznetsov on a scoring tear since the bye week, Reirden reunited him with wings Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson, Washington’s top line in the playoffs.
“He’s really commanding and really deserving more opportunity,” Reirden said Monday morning, but the move seemed to have as much to do with Ovechkin as it did Kuznetsov. Though Ovechkin had accumulated four assists in his past four games, he hadn’t scored. Because center Nicklas Backstrom is typically tasked with playing against the opponent’s top line in a shutdown role, Reirden figured separating Ovechkin from Backstrom would enable the former to potentially take advantage of an easier matchup.
“That line created a lot today, and it’s a line I’m very comfortable with and we’ve had success with last year as well and different points this year,” Reirden said. “It was good to see them have some success and score some big goals and answer back different times during the game.”
Ovechkin got on the score sheet just 3:07 into the game, when the Capitals were on an early power play thanks to Michael Amadio’s hooking infraction. Ovechkin collected a pass from Kuznetsov low in the left faceoff circle and beat Quick from the sharp angle. But Washington surrendered that 1-0 lead just 1:43 later, when Derek Forbort’s fantastic backhand between-the-legs feed found Austin Wagner right in front of the net for the tying tally.
Allowing opponents quick responses has been a problem for the Capitals this season, and it happened again in the final five minutes of the period. Wing Brett Connolly scored on his own rebound, his third goal in the past two games, and just 21 seconds later, defenseman Dmitry Orlov went to the penalty box for hooking. Los Angeles’ Tyler Toffoli then tied the score once more with a one-timer from the slot on the Kings’ power play.
Then, after an extended shift 3:42 into the second period, Los Angeles took its first lead with an Oscar Fantenberg point shot. This time it was on Washington to respond, and whenever the team has needed a big goal during this homestand, Kuznetsov has delivered. He won the offensive-zone draw, and after Orlov’s point shot caromed right to Wilson, Kuznetsov punched in the rebound from Wilson’s shot less than three minutes after Fantenberg’s goal.
“I feel like the goalies play good right now,” Kuznetsov said. ”They can save first shot, but if you can get the rebound or you can get deflection, that just make it tougher on the goalie.”
That first line sparked the Capitals again less than four minutes later. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov assisted on defenseman Christian Djoos’s go-ahead goal, a one-handed poke check that deflected off the crossbar and into the net. Jakub Vrana’s one-timer 13:09 into the period gave Washington a two-goal lead, a nice change of pace after it had been a homestand of nail-biters with every game decided by one goal and two going to overtime.
Wagner cut the Capitals’ deficit to one with 9:35 left in the third period, but Kuznetsov’s goal and his signature bird-like celebration followed, a last salute to the home crowd before the team embarks on a six-game road trip tonight. And though he and the team both found their game during this week at Capital One Arena, Kuznetsov in particular is ready for a change of scenery.
“That’s perfect,” he said. “We finally go for the road. It’s too much time we spent at home.”