- The Washington Times - Friday, January 29, 2016

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Once Evgeny Kuznetsov arrived, he didn’t want to leave.

Kuznetsov, the Washington Capitals’ second-line center and a late addition to the All-Star Game, embraced the honor during a press conference on Friday morning.

He expressed his delight over having been selected, calling it “a pretty special moment.” He joked with reporters for much of his session, which lasted 24 minutes.

And, when he was done, he waited around to watch teammate Nicklas Backstrom’s session, even interrupting to ask Backstrom a question of his own.

“It’s special, special day for me,” Kuznetsov said of media day, drawing laughter that he quickly stifled. “Seriously. It’s big memory, for sure, in my head. This day, all days, you know?”

Kuznetsov, 23, was added to the Metropolitan Division team on Wednesday night, stepping in once Alex Ovechkin withdrew because of an unspecified lower-body injury.

He was informed by coach Barry Trotz before the Capitals’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers that he would likely replace Ovechkin, then was told after the game that such a decision had been made.

On both occasions, he phoned his parents, Evgeny and Larisa, back home in Russia to share the news. The first call, received early in the Chelyabinsk morning, kept them awake in anticipation.

“They tell me after the game I’m going to go,” Kuznetsov said. “I just ask Nicky how you fly in, and they booked the flight and fly to Nashville.”

Thus, his plans to go to New York and visit Central Park scuttled, Kuznetsov strolled into the arena on Friday morning and sat down at a table in the corner. He needled the players on each side of him, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin and the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Leo Komarov, and joked about how nervous he was.

He spoke about the new three-on-three All-Star Game format, calling it “pretty fun.” He said Ovechkin told him to “enjoy every moment” of the weekend’s activities.

Through it all, he beamed with excitement.

“It’s great,” Backstrom said. “I feel like he really deserves it, too. He’s fun to watch on the ice. I’m sure he likes being a part of this, too, so I’m excited for him.”

Why Kuznetsov was chosen as Ovechkin’s replacement by the NHL remains unclear, but the Capitals’ second-line center, in his second full season, is deserving of the honor. His 49 points, off 15 goals and 34 assists, lead the team that entered the all-star break atop the standings.

That success trailed the breakout performance he had in the playoffs last season, when he scored five goals, including the winner in Game 7 of the first-round playoff series against the New York Islanders.

“He got used to the league,” said Trotz, who will be the Metropolitan Division coach in Sunday’s game. “He got his own confidence, and at about the 40-game mark, he started to take off, and come playoff time, he was one of the best players. I think it’s just continued.

“His confidence has gotten better and better, and I think, for the most part, he’s such an intelligent player. With the skill set that he has, he’s going to be one of those bright young faces in the league for a long time.”

That face lingered in the media room for the better part of an hour. Kuznetsov joined NHL Network and Canadian broadcaster Sportsnet for television interviews once his press conference had ended, then waited for Backstrom to fulfill his obligations as well.

Once he headed down the tunnel, away from the cameras and the microphones and the spotlights, Kuznetsov knew he’d be back — the next day and, he hoped, in the future.

“It’s special moment for my parents and my family,” Kuznetsov said. “That’s all I want to do: Make these people happy every day.”

• Zac Boyer can be reached at zboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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