January started badly for Kuznetsov, but now he’s first star of the month

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Evgeny Kuznetsov was named the NHL’s first star for January on Wednesday, not a huge surprise given he scored 20 points in 15 games as the Caps went 12-2-1.

But considering how the month started…

Kuznetsov, remember, was taken to task by head coach Barry Trotz following Washington’s penultimate game of 2016. Trotz said he was “really upset” with Kuznetsov for a “very careless” pass that led to New Jersey’s only goal of the game (the Devils would go on to win, 2-1, in a shootout).

In the following game, a rematch with the Devils, Kuznetsov received just 14:44 of ice time. Not exactly the way he wanted to go into the new year.

At that point, Kuznetsov had just 19 points from 35 games and was off his pace from ’15-16 when he racked up a career-high 77.

Things appeared dicey, and got even worse on Jan. 5 when the NHL fined him for diving.

But to his credit, Kuznetsov rebounded in a major way. From the league:

Kuznetsov ranked second in the NHL with 7-13—20 in 15 games to power the League-leading Capitals (33-11-6, 72 points) to a 12-2-1 January. He collected at least one point in 11 of his 15 outings, highlighted by seven multi-point performances.

That included his third career four-point game, a 1-3—4 effort Jan. 3 vs. TOR.

Kuznetsov also placed third in the NHL with a +13 rating during the month, finishing with an even or plus rating in all but one his 15 appearances.

It’s no coincidence the Caps took off when Kuznetsov’s game came around. He’s vitally important to the club’s success. When Washington has him and Nicklas Backstrom rolling — Backstrom also had a good month, and was named first star of the week on Jan. 16 — it’s among the best one-two center punches in the league.

That depth down the middle is crucial in a Metropolitan Division featuring the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux and John Tavares.