- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The goal horn went off and immediately, Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle” blared over the Capital One Arena sound-system. Evgeny Kuznetsov, fresh off a three-game suspension, was back and on this occasion, the message from the music was clear: The Capitals center needed to unleash his signature bird celebration.

But Kuznetsov did not lift his knee and flaps his arms. He did not shout.

Instead, the 27-year-old Russian glided around the net and soon met his teammates who came to celebrate. He smiled.

In his season debut, Kuznetsov scored the very first goal of the evening just under five minutes into the first period on a backhanded one-timer that went top shelf. By the end of the night — a 4-3 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars — Kuznetsov’s grin was gone, but it was still encouraging performance from a player the Capitals desperately need to perform this season.

“You know I never care about goals,” Kuznetsov said. “I’d rather have a win and be happy tomorrow.”



But…

“It’s kind of nice,” he added. “I’m not going to lie. It’s nice to score right away, especially for me, I never focus on that. I knew I had to respond right away.”

Kuznetsov went through a tumultuous offseason. First, the International Ice Hockey Federation banned Kuznetsov from international play for four years after he tested positive for cocaine. The positive test was even more concerning given that a few months earlier, a video leaked showed Kuznetsov in a Vegas hotel room sitting next to a white powdery substance. Kuznetsov denied — and still denies — using drugs that evening, but the international suspension was enough to warrant a meeting with commissioner Gary Bettman.

While cocaine is not on the NHL’s prohibited substance list, the league still gave Kuznetsov a three-game suspension for “inappropriate conduct.” Meeting with reporters in camp, Kuznetsov apologized publicly and said he would learn from the incident.

Kuznetsov’s failed test was the latest disappointment in a disappointing year for the center. Last season, Kuznetsov registered just 72 points — 21 goals and 51 assists— in 78 games. He was a non-factor in the Capitals’ first-round exit to the Carolina Hurricanes, as well.

Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan called Kuznetsov’s year “frustrating.” It was also confusing, considering the Russian was so dominant during Washington’s Stanley Cup run in 2018. That year, Kuznetsov scored 12 goals and tallied 20 assists in 20 games.

“He can do some stuff that very, very few players can do skill-wise,” center Lars Eller said before the game. “He can take over games that way. He’s got the talent (and) same level as other superstars.”

Getting Kuznetsov to perform as a superstar on a nightly basis will be the challenge moving forward.

When Kuznetsov was suspended, he grew tired. Tired of being able to participate in the team’s morning skate — only to not able to participate in games. Tired of watching the game from the gym inside the bowels of Capital One Arena.

He hated his new routine.

“When (a) game is not coming for a long time, you start doing the same thing over and over,” Kuznetsov said. “It’s hard to get better like that.”

With Kuznetsov back, the Capitals eased him into the action. Coach Todd Reirden centered Kuznetsov on the third line, putting him on a line with Richard Panik and Carl Hagelin. The lines shifted throughout the game, but Reirden said afterward that Kuznetsov would have to re-earn a spot in the top six.

Kuznetsov also wasn’t perfect. He committed a crucial penalty late in the third period as the on-ice officials called him for interference. The penalty took away a Capitals’ power play with Washington trailing late. (Washington went on to draw even with 30.7 seconds left before falling in overtime.)

Reirden said he liked the impact Kuznetsov had on the third line, though will review it further when he examines the film of Tuesday’s loss.

“It does give us depth,” Reirden said. “It gives us a really difficult matchup. … It’s a matter of finding things that work.”

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