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With four assists in Game 4, Evgeny Kuznetsov has gone next level for the Caps

With four assists in Game 4, Evgeny Kuznetsov has gone next level for the Caps

Evgeny Kuznetsov’s remarkable postseason continued in Game 4 with a four-assist performance that’s helped propel the Caps within one win of the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.

But Kuzy’s scintillating performance Monday night wasn’t just timely, it was also historic.

Consider:

  • Kuznetsov’s four helpers matched a single-game Stanley Cup Final record, achieved by 11 other players. The last time it happened? Colorado’s Joe Sakic did it in Game 2 of the 1996 Final.
  • The four assists also equaled a Caps’ single-game playoff record, previously set by Scott Stevens in Game 6 of the 1988 Patrick Division Final and Andrei Nikolishin in Game 3 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Final.

Indeed, it was a great game for Kuznetsov. But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise given how good he’s been throughout these playoffs. When it’s all said and done, No. 92’s performance this spring will go down as one of the most dominant in recent decades and among the best ever for a Russian born player.

Check out these numbers:

  • With 12 goals and 19 assists for a postseason-leading 31 points (in 23 games), Kuznetsov is just the fifth player since 1997 to register 30 or more points in a single playoffs. Evgeni Malkin is atop that list with 36 points in 2009, while Kuznetsov and Sidney Crosby (2009) are tied for second with 31.
  • Kuznetsov is five points clear of teammate and fellow countryman Alex Ovechkin (14 goals and 12 assists for 26 points) and can become just the third Russian to lead the postseason in points in the league’s modern era. Sergei Fedorov did it in 1995 and Malkin accomplished the feat in 2009 and 2017.

Head Coach Barry Trotz said on Tuesday that Kuznetsov has embraced the big stage and taken his game to the next level in recent weeks.

“The glare of Ovi probably has dimmed Kuzy’s light, if you will,” he said. “But in the playoffs, you don’t know how guys are going to perform, good or bad. Kuzy has elevated his game. It’s not surprising when you see his ability, his I.Q., his skill level.”

“And now,” Trotz continued, “he’s brought that pride of playing in really tough games [to] the most meaningful games you can play in. He’s been outstanding.”

Kuznetsov has been a superstar in the making for some time now. After these playoffs, though, there’s no doubt that he’ll be a household name.

“You can make a name for yourself in the playoffs,” Trotz said. “And he’s definitely doing that.”  

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'It's like losing a brother': The human aspect of the NHL trade deadline

'It's like losing a brother': The human aspect of the NHL trade deadline

The NHL trade deadline is always a fun time for fans. It's a time for buyers to bring in the final key pieces of a Stanley Cup roster or maybe those one or two players needed to complete a run to the playoffs. For sellers, it is time to move players away and begin looking towards the future. It's a time when everyone with any interest in hockey pours over rosters, cap hits and stats trying to determine who could fit where like pieces on a chessboard.

The feeling is much different for the players.

"It's difficult," Nick Jensen said of the trade deadline. "It's a whirlwind. Everything's going on, you're kind of comfortable at the place you're at, you have a place where you played for a while and your family's there and all of a sudden, for me, I got traded and that night I was gone and I never really looked back."

To the players, the trade deadline is not just about shuffling names from roster to roster, this is real life. A player's life can change with one phone call and the news that he now has to pack his bags for a new city and get there in a matter of days, sometimes hours.

The uncertainty of the trade deadline affects every player of every team. Obviously there are those like Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom who know they are not going to be traded, but that doesn't mean friends can't be traded for or away. Whether your team is in a rebuild or a Cup contender, there's a chance the roster could look very different by 3 p.m. on Monday for any team in the NHL.

"It can be a little distracting at times for the whole team in general if you're a team that you think was going to be making some moves, but it can also especially be distracting if you're a guy that's being talked about being traded," said Jensen who was traded to the Caps in 2019 as a deadline move.

Some players find themselves to be the unwilling trade chips of a deal as general managers try to tweak their rosters. The news of a trade, however, can sometimes be a welcome relief. That certainly has been the case for most deadline pickups for Washington in recent years.

From a competitive standpoint, typically the Caps have sought reinforcements from teams that know they will not be headed to the playoffs. Players come to Washington with the hope of competing for a Stanley Cup or perhaps of being able to find a better fit and a bigger role than the one they are leaving.

"I was in really bad situation [in Chicago]," said Michal Kempny, who was a trade deadline pickup for the Caps in 2018. "Every change was good for me. I just kind of waited what's going to happen and I got traded here."

"To come here and have some big-time meaningful games coming up, and be right in the thick of the race, it's a lot of fun," the newly acquired Brenden Dillon said.

But that's on the ice. The off-ice implications are a bit more complicated.

Off the ice, players have to think about their homes, their wives or girlfriends and their kids. Off the ice, players are faced with the realities of a world that is not built around the schedule of a professional athlete.

"My wife had just finally started living with me because she was in grad school before that so it was like oh finally we get to live together," Jensen said, "And then we lived together for like five months then I get traded and like oh here we go again. Dealing with when you get traded the stuff outside of hockey can be tough like that."

Initially, players do not have to worry about much in terms of housing. They are put up in a hotel and can adjust to their new surroundings. Then they are left to trying to adjust to their new team.

"It's kind of different.," Kempny said. "New city, new organization, new teammates. It's part of our job and those things happening every year to a lot of guys."

Adjusting to a new team can be especially difficult when it is one as tight as the Caps.

While players are certainly excited to join the organization, there also comes with it a level of intimidation of walking into the locker room.

"It feels like a tight-knit family in here, and there's a reason that they've had so much success not just this year but in years past," Dillon said. "I'm just trying to be a piece to the puzzle, come in and do what I can."

"I'm coming into a team where I got traded for a guy that was here that a lot of the guys were pretty fond of so that's kind of in the back of your mind too," Jensen said. "I know the guys really liked [Madison Bowey.] I heard he was a really great guy so I know losing guys at trades can be tough in that sense because you could grow as a family here and it's like losing a brother. Going in and trying to replace that can be tough too."

Adjusting to a new team, adjusting to a new system, adjusting to a new city and doing it while also trying to figure out where you're going to live and if and when your family may move with you is a lot for anyone to handle. The trade deadline comes with the added pressure of having to adjust quickly. A player who is traded in December still has over half the season left to play. It comes with all the same challenges, but there is more time for a player to get his game in order.

At the trade deadline, however, it's crunch time. There is only about a quarter of the season left to play and suddenly all the off-ice things that most people would refer to as "life" become a distraction from the task at hand, something in which the players have to shut out.

"The approach I always took is I always try to control the things that I could control and getting traded is out of my control," Jensen said. "I just focus on each game and take the same approach that you always take whether you're being traded or not being traded. If you focus on the stuff outside of your game, it's just a distraction, it's a waste of energy and it kind of puts a toll on you a little bit.

"It's not easy. It's not easy shutting things out like that, but that's kind of the approach you've got to take."

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Capitals add to their scoring depth in trade for Ilya Kovalchuk

Capitals add to their scoring depth in trade for Ilya Kovalchuk

With the NHL trade deadline at 3 p.m., Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan is not waiting until the last minute to get his business done. Washington acquired forward Ilya Kovalchuk from the Montreal Canadiens for their 2020 third-round draft pick. The move was first announced via Twitter.

As part of the deal, Montreal will retain 50-percent of Kovalchuk’s salary meaning he will bring a cap hit of only $350,000 to Washington.

Kovalchuk, who will turn 37 in April, has scored nine goals and 13 assists this season in 39 games. Thirteen of those points, however, have come in 22 games with the Canadiens. He began the season with the Los Angeles Kings, who he signed a three-year contract with in 2018. His contract was bought out by Los Angeles in December making him a free agent which is how he ended up in Montreal.

So which Kovalchuk will the Caps be getting?

Los Angeles brought in Kovalchuk expecting him to be a key piece on an offense management felt was close to competing. He never seemed to fit in with the Kings, however, and as the team plummeted in the standings, Kovalchuk very much became an odd-man-out. There won’t be as much pressure on Kovalchuk in Washington which has an established top-six, but he also will not see as big a role with the Caps as he had with the Canadiens.

Kovalchuk was playing 18:54 per game for Montreal, up from 15:25 in Los Angeles. Kovalchuk likely will get far less playing time in Washington and will likely slide into a third-line role as the team has not had as much offensive production from that line as hoped this year. That would have the added benefit of pushing Carl Hagelin or Richard Panik to a fourth line whose offensive production has completely dried up. Brendan Leipsic, Nic Dowd and Garnet Hathaway have combined for three points since the calendar changed to 2020.

Kovalchuk’s upside is such that the team could potentially plug him into the top six at times when the offense needs a shakeup. In recent weeks when the offense had gone stale, options were limited for what head coach Todd Reirden could do because the top six is pretty much established. There is no Brett Connolly or Andre Burakovsky to carry the third line’s production or who Reirden could plug in to shake up the offense. Now a Capitals offense that already ranks third in the NHL in goals per game has more offensive depth.

“Ilya is a talented offensive player who we feel will provide us with additional depth and flexibility up front,” said MacLellan via the team’s press release. “He is a skilled forward who can make plays and contribute to our offensive game.”

In last year’s playoff series against the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington got only five goals from its bottom six in seven games. The offense was even more top-heavy this season so the addition of Kovalchuk could prove vital both in the team’s hope to stay atop the Metropolitan Division in the regular season and also in the playoffs.

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