ARLINGTON, Va. -- When Evgeny Kuznetsov was growing up in Russia and later playing for his hometown team, Traktor Chelyabinsk, in the Kontinental Hockey League, he was aware of the Stanley Cup. But winning it was not something he thought about much.
"I just played back home," Kuznetsov said. "I played hard and I leave everything for my team. I knew the Stanley Cup, but I was young and stupid."
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After five seasons in the NHL with the Washington Capitals, Kuznetsov understands better what the Stanley Cup is all about and the opportunity they have in the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning, which begins with Game 1 at Amalie Arena on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS). The center has played a big role in them getting this far, scoring the series-clinching overtime goal in a 2-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of the second round on Monday.
"The more years you play, the more you understand hockey," the 25-year-old said. "You put so much effort every day and you're working hard. You see how guys try hard, 15-17 years in a row, and they don't get that Cup. All I believe is you have to stay focused, and one year when you don't expect it, maybe you can do more than you think."
This could turn out to be that year for the Capitals, who have reached the conference final for the first time since 1998.
Kuznetsov sees in Washington's locker room several examples of players who have waited their entire career for this, including Alex Ovechkin, who is in his 13th NHL season. Although Kuznetsov appears to have time on his side -- he'll turn 26 on May 19 -- he recognizes the importance of making the most of this chance, and he's playing like it.
His 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs are second on Washington behind Ovechkin (15 points). Kuznetsov had six points against Pittsburgh (three goals, three assists) and elevated his play going head-to-head with Penguins center Sidney Crosby in Game 6, when Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom was sidelined with a right-hand injury.
"Last game, I feel like he took over," Washington forward T.J. Oshie said of Kuznetsov. "With him and Nick, we've got kind of two No. 1 centermen, and with Nick missing last game, I don't know if anything was said to [Kuznetsov]. I know no one really said it in the locker room, but he kind of took it upon himself to really take over the game as that No. 1 center."
Capitals assistant general manager Ross Mahoney has seen Kuznetsov do this before. Before the Capitals selected him with the No. 26 pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, he was the Russia captain in the 2010 IIHF World Under-18 Championship in Belarus.
Now 6-foot-2, 204 pounds, he was a thin 6-0, 172 back then but had a Russia-high 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in seven games and willed it to the semifinals before it lost to Sweden and wound up finishing fourth.
"The team wasn't as strong as it was in some years," said Mahoney, Washington's director of amateur scouting at the time. "But he kind of tried to put the team on his back and lead them to victory."
Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Kuznetsov ends series with OT winner
A playmaking center with the skill to beat defenders 1-on-1, Kuznetsov was ranked the No. 3 European skater by NHL Central Scouting heading into the 2010 draft but fell to the Capitals.
"At that time, I think some teams might have been a little bit apprehensive about taking Russian players," Mahoney said. "In the KHL, there was some pretty good money being given to players. But we never had an issue with that. … We were very, very pleased when he was there."
One of the things that stood out about Kuznetsov then, in addition to his world-class skill, was his fun-loving attitude, which came across in predraft interviews, despite the language barrier.
"He didn't speak a lot of English, but he had personality," Mahoney said. "He was really a smiley, happy-go-lucky guy."
In that way, Kuznetsov hasn't changed, evidenced by his flapping-bird celebration after his tying goal in Game 5 against the Penguins and the overtime winner in Game 6. He keeps the mood light in the locker room.
"There's a serious side, but he loves to smile, he loves to tell jokes," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "I don't know if it's the jokes or to have fun. He'll throw a couple of balloons at you once in a while, that you have to look at him twice if he's trying to pull one on you."
Kuznetsov's teammates usually see his serious side when it gets closer to the opening face-off.
"An hour before the game, you can tell he's kind of switched his attitude and getting ready for the game," forward Brett Connolly said. "He's a competitive guy who wants to win, and he's a guy that can take over games."
The first time Connolly saw Kuznetsov do it was in the gold medal game of the 2011 IIHF World Junior Championship in Buffalo. Connolly was playing for Canada, which built a 3-0 lead in the second period before Russia scored five goals in the third to win 5-3. Kuznetsov had the primary assist on three of the goals.
"I remember in the third period he kind of came out and took the game over," Connolly said, "and we didn't have a chance at that point."
Video: PIT@WSH, Gm5: Kuznetsov pots backhand on break
Kuznetsov did it to Canada again in the semifinals of the 2012 World Junior Championship in Calgary, getting three goals and an assist in a 6-5 win before Russia lost 1-0 to Sweden in the gold-medal game. Kuznetsov was Russia's captain that year.
After signing an eight-year, $62.4 million contract last July 2 (average annual value $7.8 million), Kuznetsov expressed a desire to take on more of a leadership role in Washington and stepped up his play accordingly. He finished second on the Capitals during the regular season with a personal NHL-best 83 points (27 goals, his most in the League; and 56 assists), behind Ovechkin's 87 points.
Kuznetsov had 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in his final 11 regular-season games and carried that roll into the playoffs.
He downplayed the significance of his overtime goal Monday, saying, "It meant a little. It will mean probably a lot later, but not right now.
"If you're going to think about the game, that series, it's over with. You have to regroup. You have to practice hard because [the Lightning] are going to compete hard and they're going to play harder. We just have to outplay them, outwork them, and it's not easy."
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