Evgeny Kuznetsov and the Washington Capitals look to continue their strong start when they visit the New Jersey Devils Thursday night.
Kuznetsov had two goals and an assist in Washington’s 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday and has six points in three games.
It is very early, but 2021-22 is already shaping up as a bounce-back year for the 29-year-old forward. Last season Kuznetsov was inconsistent, finishing with nine goals and 20 assists in 41 games. He was placed in the COVID-19 protocol twice.
Thus far, Kuznetsov resembles the playmaker who averaged a point a game over the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons.
“The way he’s playing right now is a credit to him, just him,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He put in the time this summer, he was on the ice all the time, he came to camp in great shape and he started the season the right way.”
The Capitals appeared to be trying to set Kuznetsov up for the hat trick, but he was happy to move the puck along.
“I’m hoping to pass it. I’m not a shooter,” he said. “I was trying to look for something.”
New Jersey has won its first two games behind goalie Jonathan Bernier. With Mackenzie Blackwood (heel injury) sidelined indefinitely, Bernier has stopped 51 of 56 shots.
“He’s given us a chance to win,” Devils coach Lindy Ruff said. “We’ve won both games and he’s made the saves at crucial times. I’ve liked his game.”
Rookie Dawson Mercer scored his first NHL goal in the Devils’ 4-2 victory against the Seattle Kraken on Tuesday. Jimmy Vesey got his first goal as a Devil and Damon Severson and Pavel Zacha also scored.
Mercer gave the Devils an early 1-0 lead when he converted a pass from Tomas Tatar on a 2-on-1 rush.
“It’s just another hockey game,” Mercer said, “but it’s obviously nice to get that one out of the way and just focus on the next game.”
Seattle pulled within 3-2 late in the third but the Devils held them off before adding an empty-netter.
“The way we played the third period, we’ll win a lot of games,” Ruff said. “I thought we played the right way. I thought we defended well with their goalie out. There was a lot of improvement with the way we finished that game.”
The news was not all good. Center Jack Hughes left in the first period after a check by Seattle’s Jeremy Lauzon and did not return. He was being evaluated on Wednesday and did not practice.
Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin has scored in every game and has four goals and two assists thus far.
Ilya Samsonov made his first start of the season in goal Tuesday and stopped 24 of 27 shots. Laviolette did not say Wednesday whether Samsonov or Vitek Vanecek would start against New Jersey.
The Capitals sandwiched wins over the Rangers and Avalanche around an overtime loss to the Lightning in their opening homestand.
“I thought that we did some good things to get five out of six points and now we’ll take it to the road for a game,” Laviolette said. “But it’s just the beginning of the year. We’ve got a long way to go.”