One year ago the Caps managed to hold Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to only four combined points in six games. Alex Ovechkin outscored both with seven points. And yet, they still lost their second-round series to the Pittsburgh Penguins. While Ovechkin seemed to get the better of Pittsburgh’s two superstars, the Caps did not get enough offense from the rest of the rest of their roster, especially Evgeny Kuznetsov.
Kuznetsov was held to only a single point in that series. As the team’s second line center, he must be better if Washington hopes to overcome their playoff demons.
“Our line wasn't near good enough last year and we're looking to make an impact,” Justin Williams said prior to this year’s series. “We certainly need to if we're going to be successful.”
But being great in the playoffs, however, can be a challenge.
A player can sometimes takes the NHL by surprise in the postseason. When the rest of the league begins to recognize someone as a great player, however, and defenses begin to account for that player in the playoffs, success can be difficult to find.
The next step in a great player’s transition is to overcome that challenge when an opposing team begins to account for you.
“I think there's a growth pattern where you are a player that, you want to have good stats, you want to be successful and then there's a period of time where you're under the radar a little bit,” Barry Trotz said, “And you still want to be under the radar, but once you take the responsibility of being a difference maker or a guy who will be required or be responsible will be a difference maker then it's a little different mindset and I think he's crossing over.
“He knows that he's got to be a difference maker and he's going to play against top guys and he's going to be a guy that can't take nights off and has got to be detailed and has got to fight for his inches. I think he's accepted that and once you accept that then you become a real good player.”
“I think he's come to the realization that if we're going to do what we want to do this year, he's got to be a vital role,” Williams said.
Getting Kuznetsov to that point has been a focus of Trotz all season. It seems to have worked. Kuznetsov was more visible in Game 1 than he was in all six games last season and already matched his point total from that series with a goal.
Said Trotz, “I think he's adjusted, I think he's taken on the challenge, I think he's taken on the responsibility of being a top player.”