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Capitals Moments that Mattered: Kuznetsov Puts the League on Notice

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The Capitals went to overtime against the Detroit Red Wings. Among all the Caps' firepower, once again it was Evgeny Kuznetsov who shined.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

On Tuesday, Elliotte Friedman reported that some NHL teams wanted the league to put Tom Wilson on notice. On Wednesday, Evgeny Kuznetsov put the league on notice.

We've known he had the talent for years, since back when he was tormenting team Canada (and their media) in the World Junior Championships. He's shown the talent in the NHL, with several flashy passes, and surprisingly competent defensive play. On Halloween, he tricked the Panthers and treated Caps fans with an overtime goal that took advantage of the Panthers' defense over-playing Alex Ovechkin.

Last night, he did it on his own:

That' about as close to an individual effort goal as you'll see in the NHL. Nice pass from Matt Niskanen, but it's not like it sprung Kuznetsov free and clear... and in case you somehow hadn't noticed, that's Henrik Zetterberg being brushed off on the charge to the net.  The same Zetterberg who has received Selke votes in eight of the last 13 seasons, twice finishing in the top five and five times finishing in the top ten; the same one who was tasked with covering Sidney Crosby in their back-to-back Stanley Cup battles, a job he did extremely well.

Sure, Zetterberg isn't in his prime anymore, but he's still a more than competent defender. Kuznetsov gives himself a bounce pass off the boards and skates right through the attempted check. Oh, and then he beats the Wings' top defender, Niklas Kronwall on his way to the net.

(As an aside, I absolutely am not a fan of Barry Trotz's "start two defensemen in overtime because oh my god they might get the puck first" strategy. I'd play two defensively capable forwards to start the OT instead, but if I knew anything about the game...)

In any event, it worked out just fine. You can see Karl Alzner skating for a line change right as Niskanen is passing the puck. You also see a Red Wings' defender going for a change. The combination leaves Zetterberg back playing defense, and by adjusting his positioning in response to Alzner's movement across the blue line, Zetterberg gets taken just enough off his angle to give Kuznetsov the room to go wide. Without Alzner's movement along the blue line (or with the third Red Wing still in the play), Zetterberg could have stepped up higher in the neutral zone and potentially taken away Kuznetsov's angle.

Watching Kuznetsov break out has been a joy this season. He looked a bit hesitant in his NHL time prior to this year, but showed some signs of putting it together in the second half of last season and was very good in the playoffs. So far this year, he's been great.

It reminds me of another time I saw an athlete with the talent to dominate, but without the understanding of the game or the confidence to make it happen. Once it clicked, he was a man among boys.

Hey, NHL defenders...