Heading into the 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, nobody would have been surprised to see Alexander Ovechkin or Braden Holtby standout for the Washington Capitals. While those two have been great, another player has been the star. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov has flourished in the postseason and has blossomed into a legitimate NHL star.
If Kuznetsov wasn’t a household name, he is now. His performance this postseason puts him among some of the best names in the game. The Capitals owe much of its success this postseason to the play of its top-line center.
Kuznetsov a Postseason Star
The postseason is a time when stars elevate their game — that’s exactly what Kuznetsov has done this year. Starting with his two-goal effort in Game 1 versus the Columbus Bluejackets in the first round, he’s been the best player on the ice for the Caps.
There have only been five games this postseason in which he failed to register a point. One of those was Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final after he left in the first period due to an upper-body injury. During the Capitals’ dominating Game 4 win over the Golden Knights Monday evening he became the first player since Joe Sakic in 1996 to record four assists in a Stanley Cup Final game.
His overtime shot that beat goalie Matt Murray in Game 6 of the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins will live forever in the minds of DC sports fans. That goal ended a 20-year stretch of failing to make it to the Conference Finals. It also broke the Caps’ streak of back-to-back series losses to the Penguins.
Prior to this year, Kuznetsov had played in 39 postseason games, scoring 11 goals and dishing out 8 assists. Through 23 games this year, he has 12 goals and 19 assists. His 31 points are the second most scored in a single postseason since 1998. Sidney Crosby put up 31 points and fellow Penguin, Evgeni Malkin recorded 36 in 2009.
Kuznetsov picked the best time to turn into a superstar.
Finally Reaching His NHL Potential
The Caps have been waiting for Kuznetsov to reach the potential that was expected of him when they drafted him 26th overall in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. At the time of the draft, he was considered one of the best European skaters available because of his ability to skate and move the puck.
Prior to joining the Caps, Kuznetsov played with Team Russia in the World Junior Hockey Championships and the IIHF World Championship. He spent several seasons playing in the KHL in Russia and was an All-Star during the 2011-12 season.
Kuznetsov officially joined the Capitals in March 2014. He appeared in 17 games that season, registering nine points and showing the potential to be a very solid NHL center. Starting with the 2014-15 season, he became a full-time member of the Caps. He played 80 games but only put up 37 points. Despite the low output as a rookie, he bounced back in his second full year, recording 77 points, including 57 assists, during the 2015-16 season.
Kuznetsov struggled last season. Playing in all 82 games, his point total dropped to 59. He did manage 10 points in 13 postseason games last year, but the output still wasn’t what was expected of him. This season, he set a career-high with 27 goals and 83 points and his excellent regular season has transferred into a fantastic postseason.
Even if Washington doesn’t go on to win the Stanley Cup, Kuznetsov should be the frontrunner for the Conn Smythe Trophy, given to the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He has been the best player for the Caps and has put himself in the spotlight. With stars like Ovechkin, Malkin and Crosby starting to reach the backside of their careers, a new crop of NHL superstars will start to emerge. Evgeny Kuznetsov will no longer be unknown outside of the Nation’s Capital, and will be at the forefront of new stars in the NHL.