Evgeny Kuznetsov has embraced his role as facilitator for Alex Ovechkin and T.J. Oshie on Washington’s top line, but every so often he’ll show off his scoring ability, too.
The 23-year-old had the best performance of his career as the Capitals completed a perfect trip, and they’ll return home seeking a sixth straight victory Wednesday night against a Pittsburgh Penguins team seeking its fifth win in six contests.
Kuznetsov finished with 11 goals and 26 assists in his first full season in 2014-15 before netting five goals in 14 postseason contests. He hadn’t scored in Washington’s first six this season before busting out with his first career hat trick while adding two assists in Friday’s 7-4 win over Edmonton.
Ovechkin scored in the first five games he played before posting two assists against the Oilers, including one to Kuznetsov, who was named the NHL’s first star of the week after finishing with nine points to help the Capitals (6-1-0) sweep a three-game trip.
"He’s come out and has tons of confidence from last year," coach Barry Trotz said of Kuznetsov, whose 11 points lead the club. "I think he’s comfortable with what we’re doing as a team, he’s comfortable with his linemates."
That line has combined for 27 points and hasn’t had trouble meshing after Oshie was acquired from St. Louis in an offseason trade. Washington is on the verge of winning seven of its first eight for the first time since 2011.
Trotz doesn’t believe the Capitals have played their best, though. He expressed disappointment with the four goals allowed against the Oilers and concern for the amount of high-quality chances opponents had during the trip.
"(Points) are worth just as much now as they are at the end of the season," Trotz said. "The key is to stay ahead of everybody. We have to make sure that any good work we did, that goes in the bank and now we’ve got to earn some more points.
"There’s no patting on the back."
The Penguins (4-4-0) are still having trouble finding the back of the net but have rebounded from an opening three-game regulation skid with wins in four of their last five – three of them coming by one goal.
Phil Kessel scored in overtime to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 win at Nashville on Saturday, but it marked the seventh time they’ve scored fewer than three goals.
Sidney Crosby has a goal and two assists, each coming in a win over Florida on Oct. 20. He never had fewer than seven points through eight games in his previous 10 seasons.
Marc-Andre Fleury has helped make up for the scoring woes with a 1.60 goals-against average over the last five. He made 38 saves Saturday – 33 in the final two periods.
"He looks big in the net. He’s square to pucks, he’s keeping pucks tight to him," coach Mike Johnston said. "We have a lot of confidence in him back there."
Fleury has a 3.04 GAA in his last four against the Capitals after making 21 saves in a 4-3 win Feb. 25 that snapped Washington’s three-game winning streak in the series.
Crosby scored in that contest, but that’s his only point in the last four against the Capitals. Ovechkin’s goal gave him four with an assist in his last three in the series.
Braden Holtby has won his last four starts with a 1.50 GAA and could be in net for Washington.