ARLINGTON. Va. -- During Evgeny Kuznestov's first full NHL season in 2014-15, Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz was sometimes careful in how the Russian center was utilized while he learned how to play responsibly on both sides of the puck.
Two years later, it's clear how far Kuznetsov has come in earning Trotz's trust by the assignments he has given him in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After being matched against talented Toronto Maple Leafs rookie Auston Matthews in the Eastern Conference First Round, Kuznetsov has been tasked with playing against Pittsburgh Penguins star center Evgeni Malkin in the Eastern Conference Second Round. That will be Trotz's plan again when the Capitals look to even the best-of-7 series in Game 2 at Verizon Center on Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).
"I think he's ready for it," Trotz said after the morning skate. "I think he can skate."
Matching Kuznetsov against Malkin allows Trotz to go power against power with Nicklas Backstrom playing head to head against Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
Video: WSH@TOR, Gm3: Kuznetsov finds twine from tough angle
"Crosby-Backstrom, Malkin-Kuznetsov: the best against the best," Trotz said.
Although Crosby scored two goals in the Penguins' 3-2 win in Game 1, Kuznetsov helped keep Malkin off the scoresheet and limited him two shots on goal. Kuznetsov also scored a goal 8:05 into the third period that tied the game at 2-2 before Nick Bonino scored the winner for Pittsburgh with 7:24 remaining.
Kuznetsov, the Capitals' first-round-pick (No. 26) in the 2010 NHL Draft, has always been known more as an offensive player. The 24-year-old Chelyabinsk native led the Capitals with 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) last season, but he struggled in the playoffs and finished with one goal and one assist in 12 games.
After getting off to a slow start his season, Kuznetsov finished third on the Capitals with 59 points (19 goals, 40 assists). He has four points (two goals, two assists) in seven playoff games. But as talented as Kuznetsov is offensively, he knew he had to improve his play defensively to become a complete player.
"I think if you want to play in this league you have to play both ways for sure," he said. "That's the way of hockey right now."
He seems to relish the challenge of being entrusted to play against skilled players like Malkin.
"It's like anybody, you know? You always want to be on the ice," Kuznetsov said. "You always want to play, but it's the playoffs, and you have to play good every time and you have to execute every play."
Video: NYR@WSH: Johansson, Kuznetsov connect for nifty goal
Kuznestov remembers playing against the Penguins and Malkin when he made his NHL debut at Verizon Center on March 10, 2014. When he was growing up in Russia, Malkin, who is from Magnitogorsk, is one of the players he watched and admired.
"I saw him twice on the ice, so it's [a] pretty special moment," he said.
Even now, more than three years later, it's special for him.
"I watched Crosby and Malkin when I was young," he said. "Right now, I play against [them]. It's pretty cool."
Kuznetsov first met Malkin playing for Russia at the 2012 IIHF World Championship, another experience he called "pretty cool.
"You can learn a lot for sure from players like [Malkin], like Sid, like [Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin], like Matthews," Kuznetsov said. "Matthews is so young, but still you can learn something from him if you want to be better, right? You can't be just thinking you're so good. You have to learn from other guys too."
One player Trotz wanted Kuznetsov to watch and learn from was former Detroit Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk, who won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's top defensive forward three times. Kuznetsov even worked with Datsyuk's personal trainer in Russia last summer.
"It's tough to copy his game, you know?" Kuznetsov said. "But I did look at some things he's trying to do with his stick. He just takes a little bit more time, if you learn. It's always tough to learn something if you don't want to do it, you know? You want to play both ways, but sometimes everyone want to play with the puck, right? But playing without puck, it's tough to learn because the way you can learn only is in the games.
"But in the game … if you do make a mistake, your team will pay for that, right? That's the time when you will learn how to play."