When Evgeny Kuznetsov was announced as the first star of the game following Friday night’s 4-3 win over Vancouver Canucks, the 21-year-old Russian emphatically flipped a puck into the stands and applauded the fans at Verizon Center, tapping his stick with his gloved hand.
A few minutes later, Kuznetsov’s cell phone was filled with text messages from more than 5,000 miles away.
“I had a lot of messages,” Kuznetsov said through a smile on Saturday, the morning after recording his first Kuznet-trick, a three-assist night against the Canucks. “All my friends. My momma and poppa, they cry I think. They were all excited.”
There is a 10-hour time difference between Chelyabinsk, Russia and Washington, which means Kuznetsov’s wife, parents and family had to get up at 5 a.m. to see him record his first three NHL points.
“Whoever gets up early accomplishes a lot,” Kuznetsov said. “They have all day to sleep.”
As a reward for his big night Capitals coach Adam Oates promoted Kuznetsov to a second line, where he replaced left wing Dustin Penner on a line with center Casey Wellman and right wing Troy Brouwer.
“He had a great night, a little reward,” Oates said. “I put Dustin back. He didn’t do anything wrong. He had a pretty good night himself. It’s just a feel against Toronto.”
Ironically, Kuznetsov saw less ice time in Friday night’s win over Vancouver [9:58] than he did in his first two NHL games [10:22 and 14:52 against the Penguins].
Oates said he’s a little fearful of giving Kuznetsov too much too soon.
“I really want to caution about getting to far ahead,” Oates said. “He made a couple good plays. Good. He can make a couple boneheads tomorrow. He’s a good hockey player, he’s played pro hockey, even though it’s over there. Do I expect him to make that pass to Willy? It was a great pass. Awesome.
“Is he learning? Yeah, I hope so. But I also want to caution myself on the wow factor.”
To make room for Kuznetsov, Penner [no points on nine shots in six games] was dropped to a fourth line with center Jay Beagle and right wing Tom Wilson.
“I thought he had a couple opportunities that if he was in a little better position he could have gotten 2-on-1s down the ice,” Oates said of Penner. “I think that’s also him learning our system, in terms of how fast you’ve got to get across the ice. I think he wasted some chances because of that. But I also think he did some good things in the game.”
Acquired from the Anaheim Ducks for a fourth-round pick at the NHL trade deadline, Penner said he did not read much into being demoted to a fourth line.
“I haven’t had enough scoring chances but I like the way I’ve skated,” Penner said. “I wanted to come in here and first of all be defensive and try to help them knock their goals-against down and not be a liability on the ice. There are probably a few points we’ve left out there as a line, but at this time of year individual points mean less and team points mean way more.”
The fact Wellman replaced Marcus Johansson on the second line – and Johansson was moved to top-line left wing with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin – is a strong indicator the Caps will be without Brooks Laich on Sunday when they face the Maple Leafs.
Oates said Laich, who took just two shifts in the final 12 minutes Friday night because of groin pain, will be a game-time decision.