The two best scorers in the Stanley Cup Playoffs skate on the same Capitals line. If Washington finishes off Vegas to win it all, it’ll be because Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov led them there. It’ll be because they led each other there, too.
Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are world-class players on their own. Ovechkin is the best scorer of his time, period. Kuznetsov came into his own this season, entering the top 20 in regular-season points before he became the playoff leader in them. But they’re miles better together — even more than should be obvious for a pairing of two elite talents.
The two have played about 85 percent of their minutes together in these playoffs:
- In the 388 minutes they’ve played together, the Capitals have outscored opponents 36-13.
- In the 132 minutes when one’s played without the other, Washington’s differential is 6-5
- In the 864 minutes neither has played, Washington’s been outscored 38-34
That Ovechkin and Kuznetsov play together on the power play and don’t kill penalties juices those numbers for dramatic effect. Still, the Capitals’ playoff scoring margin at even strength is 18-9 when they’re out together, 29-25 when they’re not.
The two Russian members of the Capitals’ top line are what takes them from solid to a now-likely Cup champion. They took over Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday, scoring the Capitals’ first two goals in a 3-1 win against the Golden Knights. Both were all over the ice. They connected for one goal, Ovechkin’s, but could have had more.
What makes Ovechkin and Kuznetsov click, aside from their obvious individual talents? There are long and short answers.
The long one comes from their head coach, Barry Trotz.
“They’re both very creative,” Trotz told me at a press conference after Game 3. “They play with passion, creativity and passion. I don’t think we lock them up. We allow our players to create at the right times, make good decisions. I think they do that. They understand each other. They understand about how they can disrupt coverages, throw in a little bit of deception, and obviously with all that skill, they can execute on it.”
The short one comes from Kuznetsov.
“I don’t know,” he said in the post-Game 3 locker room. “Sometimes, I know to look for him. I know where he’s gonna be. I believe the same the other way.”
Asked the same question, Ovechkin only wanted to talk about Washington’s center depth, mentioning Nicklas Backstrom, Lars Eller, and Jay Beagle, too.
The two Russian national teammates give each other what they need.
Backstrom was Ovechkin’s primary center for most of the last decade, before the Capitals started to skate Kuznetsov with their captain more often over the last few years.
The key to unleashing Ovechkin, per Backstrom, is not complicated:
“I mean, you’ve gotta give him the puck when he wants it.”
Kuznetsov does that, both on the power play and at even strength. Giving Ovechkin the puck is imperative, because he likes to shoot it more than anyone else. He’s racked up hundreds more shots than any other player since his rookie season in 2005.
Kuznetsov is a little more pass-oriented, Ovechkin a little more shot-oriented. But one of the things that’s made them so hard to defend is how readily the two break out of those molds. Some of Washington’s most important and beautiful goals this spring have come when Ovechkin has seen a streaking Kuznetsov and delivered a tape-to-tape pass.
That summed up the overtime winner that beat Pittsburgh in Round 2 ...
... and a gorgeous Kuznetsov breakaway goal in the Eastern Conference Final:
Among several others.
Ovechkin and Kuznetsov are hard to defend under any circumstance. They’re especially tricky because both are credible threats at the things they’re not known for — Kuznetsov just firing the puck on his own, and Ovechkin giving up a shot to dish it.
Kuznetsov led two odd-man rushes in Game 3 against Vegas. On one, alongside Ovechkin, he gave him a saucer pass that would’ve led to a goal if Marc-Andre Fleury hadn’t made a brilliant save. On the other, with Jay Beagle, Kuznetsov kept the puck and scored himself.
It’s taken Ovechkin and Kuznetsov a while to get this good together.
As recently as last season, they were taking most of their shifts apart, and the Capitals were posting better even-strength numbers when the two were separate. In 2016-17, at five-on-five, the Capitals scored 54 percent of the goals when they skated together, as opposed to north of 60 percent when one was out without the other. Even in this regular season, the Capitals were about as successful when they were apart as when they were together.
That changed in these playoffs. Ovechkin and Kuznetsov have been individually brilliant, but for the first time, they’re driving each other and their team to new heights.
“Sometimes it’s pretty hard to find your game,” Kuznetsov said. “When you find your game, you have to stay with that. You have to do the same thing sometimes. The game not going well, you just have to keep working and stick for each other, play for your partner. And one day, the bounce will come your way.”