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Capitals' Kuznetsov to play major role vs. Penguins

Washington's leading point-producer during regular season can be difference-maker against Pittsburgh

by Tom Gulitti @tomgulittinhl / Staff Writer

ARLINGTON, Va. -- All the attention in North America heading into the Eastern Conference Second Round is on Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby facing each other in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in their careers, and first time since 2009.

Back in Russia, the perception might be a little different with center Evgeni Malkin also likely to play a major role for the Penguins and Evgeny Kuznetsov as a primary supporting player for the Capitals in the best-of-7 series, which starts Thursday at Verizon Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports).

Ovechkin, 30, was selected first by the Capitals in the 2004 NHL Draft before the Penguins took Malkin, 29, with the second pick. Kuznetsov, 23, was a Capitals' first-round draft pick (No. 26) in 2010.

"It's Pittsburgh against Washington, right?" Kuznetsov said Tuesday. "It's tough to say, but, of course, everybody wants to look at it as Crosby-Ovi. They played against each other (seven) years ago and it's a big rivalry for them."

This is the second time through the NHL playoffs for Kuznetsov after he had five goals and two assists in 14 postseason games last year as a rookie. He's not so bold to think of himself as the Capitals' answer to Malkin, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 2006-07, the Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs in 2009, and the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP in 2011-12.

"I'm just looking forward to going against good teams, not against one guy," Kuznetsov said. "It's played team on team, right? You can beat Malkin, but your team can lose. You have to win like a team, not one person."

Video: WSH@PHI, Gm3: Kuznetsov cleans up carom off glass

Kuznetsov said he knows Malkin, "pretty well."

They played together for Russia at the World Championship in 2014, and played against each other in the KHL during the 2012-13 NHL work stoppage with Malkin representing his hometown team of Magnitogorsk and Kuznetsov with his hometown team in Chelyabinsk.

"His hometown is close to mine, like a three-hour drive, and it's always a big (competition), my team against his team," Kuznetsov said.

After missing the first game of the Penguins' first-round series against the New York Rangers while recovering from an upper-body injury, Malkin had two goals and seven points in the final four. Crosby was the only Penguin with more points in the first round with eight (three goals, five assists).

Kuznetsov said Malkin plays "a totally different style of hockey" from Ovechkin, who had three goals and two assists, and led the Capitals with 28 hits in their six-game victory against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.

"Ovi is a goal scorer and a heavy guy and Malkin is more like a creator," Kuznetsov said. "It's different players."

Kuznetsov, a gifted play-making center who led the Capitals with 77 points (20 goals, 57 assists) during the regular season, wouldn't say he's more similar to Malkin but acknowledged, "It's hard to be like Ovi."

Video: WSH@PHI: Ovechkin opens the scoring with a snipe

To defeat the Penguins, the Capitals are going to need Kuznetsov to be more like the dominant player he was for the first three-quarters of the regular season.

He did not score a goal in the final 20 games of the regular season and had one point in the six first-round games against the Flyers. That was a power-play goal off of a fortunate bounce in a 6-1 victory in Game 3.

In 18 games since March 18, Kuznetsov has one goal and four assists. His line with Andre Burakovsky and Justin Williams did not produce a point at even strength against the Flyers. That caused head coach Barry Trotz to move Marcus Johansson up from the third line to take Burakovsky's place at left wing on the second line for the Capitals' 1-0 win in Game 6 on Sunday.

"We're going to need production from all four lines in this series if we're going to have any success," Trotz said.

Kuznetsov wants his line to play its part.

"You can see we're not playing well right now as a line, but we had a couple meetings and I hope we're going to play better," Kuznetsov said. "We have to play better. We have to have more scoring."

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