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Original Issue

WASHINGTON'S FREE BIRD

He doesn't believe in a healthy diet or obsess over a scoring drought. He thinks dressing conservatively is lame and that the ice at his home rink sucks. There's nothing bland or boring about the Capitals' EVGENY KUZNETSOV, the NHL's most creative center and most colorful character

Beyond the overarching shock of moving halfway around the world, Evgeny Kuznetsov was struck by a few smaller unfamiliarities upon joining the NHL in March 2014. Receiving per diem on road trips, for instance, was an entirely foreign concept in his native Russia. Ditto for dumping the puck into the offensive zone. But nothing bothered the Washington Capitals center more than his new job's conservative dress code.

"Wearing the suit was the biggest problem," he says. "I still hate that s---. One day I wish the NHL can allow you to wear whatever you want. I will have new look for every game."

It is an amusing mental image, Kuznetsov as the sartorial soulmate of Russell Westbrook or James Harden. But for now Kuznetsov is resigned to cycle through the same 10 suits, each tailored to fit his 6'2", 204-pound frame and bland enough to fit in. "In our sport, it's just different," he says. "Basketball not like that. People won't make fun of [NBA players] because they wear pink shoes. They go, 'O.K., that's his style.'"

Of course, even if Kuznetsov were to swap ice sheets for hardwood courts, his style would still stand out. Winger Tom Wilson describes his linemate this way: "Expect the unexpected." Indeed, few skaters possess the same impromptu pizzazz as the Capitals' leading scorer during their 2018 Stanley Cup run, whether it's the no-look, behind-the-back passes that he whips from behind opposing nets or pristinely angled pucks that he banks off the dasher boards. The maxim applies everywhere; several years ago Kuznetsov surprised the bejesus out of a former Capitals staffer by hiding behind the pump door of the team's training room hot tub. As Washington captain Alex Ovechkin puts it, "Funny guy. A little bit crazy."

Spending just a couple of minutes with Kuznetsov proves the Great 8 correct. Here he is, for instance, evaluating the ice conditions at the Capitals' rink: "So awful. Worst-three [in the NHL.] You can't even skate." Or last June, on the National Mall, finishing his championship parade speech with an iconic call to action: "Let's f--- this s---."

In a fit of similar spontaneity Kuznetsov unveiled his now-signature goal celebration, a single-leg-raising, both-arms-flapping bird imitation borrowed from a FIFA video game. "I made that move and I really feel like people in Canada start hating that," he says. (See: Cherry, Don.) "When people don't like it, it make me do it again and again. I'm just trying to be myself and have fun."

This is Kuznetsov's guiding light. Teammates have grown accustomed to hearing his laugh echo through the halls of their Arlington, Va., practice facility. But the rest of the hockey universe is still learning about one of its most creative stars, a personality that would shine even brighter if only NHL culture permitted players to be more than, as Kuznetsov puts it, "piece of stone." In the 1950s basketball fans were blessed with Bob Cousy, Houdini of the Hardwood. Today's puckheads have Harry Potter, as his teammates once dubbed him, a major reason why the Capitals not only banished their Cup ghosts but also hold legitimate hopes of repeating this year.

A little bit crazy? Nah, that's just Kuzy.

ONE DAY last month veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik was lacing up for a morning skate when Kuznetsov approached with an odd request: "Hey, do you have any extra skates?" At first Orpik directed Kuznetsov to the team's equipment manager, assuming that he simply needed a fresh pair. No, Kuznetsov replied. He wanted used skates. "I like them soft," he explained. And so it was that Kuznetsov not only hit the ice wearing Orpik's size-9.5 Bauers that morning but also sported those slightly-too-large boots for the first period that night against Buffalo.

Recalling this story, Orpik is reminded of another skilled Russian center. "[Evgeni] Malkin used to pull random guys' sticks off the bench and score two goals," Orpik says of his former Pittsburgh teammate. Turns out that Kuznetsov has done the exact same thing, sampling every lefthanded twig on the roster without regard for flex or curve. "He'd grab someone else's stick in the rack, cut it, tape it up quick and go on the ice," says Oilers winger Alex Chiasson, who played for the Caps last season. "And he was the best player with a brand-new stick that he's never used before."

The majority of Kuznetsov's routine is just as loose. Consider his nutritional habits ... or lack thereof. Served at every Capitals meal is a thick, creamy red-pepper dressing that players call Kuzy Sauce because his pregame chicken fingers always swim in the stuff. Earlier this season Wilson asked Kuznetsov how he was feeling an hour before warmups. "I'm on my fourth bagel," Kuznetsov replied. And over dinner at a Boston steakhouse on Jan. 9, his eyes lit up as the waiter described the featured special: tomahawk wagyu rib eye, nicely marbled, 32 ounces.

"So we're going to share that one, right?" Kuznetsov asked his dining partner. "I'm not on some special green veggie diet. I'm totally against that s---."

Even the way he skates looks casual. Dipping into a wide stance, he glides through the neutral zone with both blades on the ice, somehow gathering speed with few movements beyond a slight bend of the knee or twist of the hips. "The way he gets faster without taking a stride," Capitals coach Todd Reirden says, "I haven't quite figured this out."

It is not the only mystery in his game. Despite averaging 0.95 points through Jan. 17, the second-best mark of his six-year NHL career, Kuznetsov still occasionally frustrates team brass with lapses in two-way attention. "He has the ability to be one of the top players in the league, and he shows it in spurts," GM Brian MacLellan says. "I really think he could be a good penalty-killer. He could choose to be a lot better on face-offs. He could do whatever he wants, basically."

Then an assistant GM, MacLellan remembers giddiness spreading around the Capitals' draft table when Kuznetsov fell to them at No. 26 overall in 2010. It took four more years before Kuznetsov finally left Chelyabinsk and then another two before he broke out with a team-high 77-point season in '15--16. "He's grown up in a good way," Ovechkin says.

This became especially clear last postseason, when center Nicklas Backstrom missed four games with a fractured right finger. Forced to fill the void, Kuznetsov had seven points in Backstrom's absence, including the Game 6 overtime goal that clinched Washington's second-round series win over the Penguins. No wonder getting up for games in January now seems humdrum by comparison.

As he says over dinner, "It's not April, right? That's the moments when you know one mistake will count everything.... That's the moment we play for."

AN HOUR or so later, Kuznetsov settles into a suite-level seat at TD Garden to watch the Pacers take on the Celtics. It was his suggestion to get tickets. Despite knowing next to nothing about the sport when he arrived in America, Kuznetsov is now a massive basketball fan, studying salary-cap situations and catching the West Coast feeds after Capitals games. He is also cultivating a D.C.--area sports friendship with Wizards guard Bradley Beal.

Kuznetsov is fascinated with fellow athletes. He devours biographical documentaries, recently watching one about Brazilian street painter turned Manchester City striker Gabriel Jesus. In Chelyabinsk, Kuznetsov grew up across the street from boxer Sergey Kovalev and has tagged along for several of the former light heavyweight champ's fights. He expresses a particular desire to ask Wayne Rooney to dinner so he can pick the D.C. United captain's brain. "I will for sure when I get older, when I am not shy," Kuznetsov says.

In this way, Kuznetsov is far more introspective than his eccentricities might suggest. Reirden will even consult him on changes to the Capitals' defensive structure, asking him to describe how he would beat the new system. Right now Kuznetsov's dream is to spend trade deadline day inside the Capitals' war room. And whenever the 26-year-old retires, he plans to seek out an NHL referee. "Just want to understand how their world looks," he says.

Kuznetsov attacks goalies with the same curiosity. "He understands what they do and what they're thinking," says Capitals goalie coach Scott Murray. As evidence Murray submits the wrister that Kuznetsov slung past Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen's left ear on Oct. 13, having perfectly calculated when the netminder would drop down to protect the near post. Murray also cites a Kuznetsov tally in the first round last spring that zipped through Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky's five hole. "He know me, I know him," Kuznetsov explained to Murray later. "He thought I was going to pass."

In fairness to Bob, passing is what Kuznetsov almost always does. He figures his feed-first tendencies stem from a youth coach who restricted how long players could hold the puck in practice. Through Jan. 16, Kuznetsov ranked 11th in assists since 2015--16 with 183, six behind Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. "That's how I show respect to my partners, share the puck with them," he says. "When guy don't pass to you when he sees you open, that's disrespect. That's how I think."

Back at the basketball game, Kuznetsov munches on an ice-cream sandwich while reflecting on the Capitals' championship. "After those couple years we lose," he says, referring to three straight second-round exits from 2015 through '17, "I start to understand what pain mean."

The way Kuznetsov views things, fortunes only changed once the f-word entered the Capitals' vocabulary. "We always been so focused, like, almost no smile," he says. "Then last year everyone was like, Enjoy it. If we're going to die, we're going to die having fun."

IMAGINE YOU are Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo. It is Jan. 12, and you have just allowed the tying power-play goal with 1:06 remaining in the third period. Now, as the ice is getting scraped before overtime, here comes the player who just celebrated scoring by parroting a parrot, cruising by with a big smile.

"Happy to score once in a while!" Kuznetsov hollered.

That one-timer marked Kuznetsov's first goal in five weeks, breaking a drought that seemed to bother him as much as a bug bite. "It's not easy to have 82 games [where] you can just be perfect," Kuznetsov says. "Just have to go through those months where you're up and down, right? ... But when you're down, you can't let yourself go all the way down. [That is] something new I learned."

He's discovered a lot about fame too. "Back home [in Chelyabinsk], if I go in streets, grocery store," he says, "people just blow their mind because Capitals is so popular." His presence sparks similar reactions around the Beltway. In September, Kuznetsov accompanied Ovechkin to the Brazil--El Salvador soccer friendly at FedEx Field, where they met up with Washington cornerback Josh Norman. At first Kuznetsov wondered if Norman thought that he was a member of Ovechkin's entourage. So imagine his surprise when Norman began gushing about Kuznetsov's Game 6 goal against Pittsburgh.

The biggest sign that his profile has taken flight? The bird celebration, of course. His Instagram profile is regularly tagged in videos of kids raising a single leg and flapping both arms. Recently it made an appearance at the world junior championships, courtesy of Swiss forward Yannick Brüschweiler. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, what did it suggest when the Blue Jackets borrowed the move en masse after Artemi Panarin's overtime winner against the Caps on Jan. 12?

"Felt pretty good," Columbus captain Nick Foligno said later. "No wonder Kuznetsov does it."