Evgeny Kuznetsov was at his best last spring in leading the league in postseason scoring with 32 points in 24 games.
If the Capitals are to make another deep postseason run, they’ll need more of the same from Kuznetsov, who battled inconsistency at times during the regular season.
“He played at a very high level from last year’s playoffs,” said General Manager Brian MacLellan. “He is an important part of our team; the position he plays and the role he has on our team. We expect him to play like he did last year.”
In the Capitals’ series-opening 4-2 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, Kuznetsov centered the second line, between veterans Carl Hagelin and T.J. Oshie.
While the trio will be looked upon for offensive contributions throughout the series, they will also be relied on heavily in containing Carolina’s top guns. Not unlike when the Capitals swept a late-season home-and-home series against the Hurricanes, the Kuznetsov line is expected to be matched up primarily against Carolina’s No. 1 line of Nino Niederreiter, Sebastian Aho and Justin Williams.
Aho, 21, led Carolina with 30 goals and 83 points during the regular season. He has also had much success against Washington with 8 goals and 17 points in 12 career regular-season games against the Capitals.
That said, the Capitals held Aho to just one assist in two games in late March, with head coach Todd Reirden deploying the Kuznetsov line as his desired matchup.
While the offensively gifted Kuznetsov may not be thought of as the ideal fit for a shutdown role, Reirden sees it differently.
“He’s a player that really responds to a challenge,” Reirden said of Kuznetsov. “It’s probably not humanly possible to challenge a player 82 games of the year, especially someone as young in his career like him. He seems to rise to the occasion of specific challenges.
“We saw a little bit of that in our prior matchup against Carolina with him playing against [Aho]. I think some people gave me a second or third look for playing Evgeny against their most talented offensive player. But the response we got from him and from his line and how it helped our team win those two games, I think he had a big role.”
Kuznetsov downplayed the thought of being used in a “shutdown’ role, suggesting if he plays his usual offensive game and controls the puck in the Hurricanes zone, that will serve as the best defense.
“There are no more shutdown guys in the league anymore,” he said. “It’s just about who’s going to play more with the puck. If you’re going to take away the puck from them, that’s how you can shut down the other team.
“That’s what hockey should be. When it’s about who’s going to score more. At the same time, you’re not going to forget about D, but when you play speed hockey, when you challenge the best players to play defensively, that’s how you can defend them.”
It doesn’t hurt that Kuznetsov will be playing alongside responsible veterans in Hagelin and Oshie.
“Any time you match up against an opponent’s key players or someone that can hurt you offensively, you take a little extra pride in trying to shut that line down, shut him down,” Oshie said.
“We were matched up against them a couple of times with Hags on the left there and Kuzy in the middle and me on the right. We took some pride in that. … It’s a tough task. He’s a great player. That’s a great line. But we’ll see if that’s the matchup we have and if it is, then we’ll take pride in trying to shut them down and almost have a little bit of a series within the series.”
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